Beyond the breast-feeding wars: a secret supplementer speaks out

To the average observer, I am a breast-feeding mother of a three month old infant. But the truth is more complex. I was once the embodiment of a La Leche League wet (pun intended) dream. Now, I am a part-time formula user. Yes -- I am one of the secret supplementers.

When my first son was born, I was a newly minted stay-at-home mom. I’d left my job in corporate litigation to go in-house.  My son took to the breast. And took to it. And took to it. As a new and clueless parent, I generally made the assumption that if the kid was crying, he was hungry. If we go by hours, I’m pretty sure that more than half of my little baby’s life was spent with my breast in his mouth. I never pumped: after all, why should I? I was with this guy all the time. If he and I were dating, it would have been labeled a dysfunctional relationship. I took him into breast-feeding “support” groups and the other attendees marveled as my boy rocked the scale.

Coutesy: Jordana Horn / Today
Baby G, 3-month-old daughter of Jordana Horn, had both breast milk and formula. And doesn't she look happy?

Fast-forward eight years. In the interim, I had another son, I divorced and remarried, and now, this summer, had a daughter. I am a journalist with daily deadlines.  When pregnant and asked if I was going to breastfeed, I said, “Of course,” and received a pleased smile from my obstetrician.

So after giving birth, seeing my family, saying hi to my sister who had just gone into labor down the hall – no kidding – I felt kind of tired. It was a big day. And when the nurses asked me whether I wanted to get up that night to feed the baby, I said, you know something? Let’s wait till morning and give her a bottle of (gasp!) formula when she’s hungry.

See, this is where you’re supposed to react with shock and horror. Because we all know “breast is best.” Because we all know that any bottle might seduce your young kid’s mouth away from your breast. Because we all know that formula is terrible, terrible! I, of course, was raised entirely on formula back in the day and ended up being a healthy productive member of society with two degrees from an Ivy League institution, but let’s go back to talking about how formula is the nectar of the devil.

Actually, let’s not. I’m convinced that those initial bottles helped teach my baby that plastic nipples could be just as good as mine – a good thing for when I had to go back to work. And while I pumped like a maniac, when my supply dipped due to vagaries of my professional and personal schedule, I supplemented my breast-feeding with formula.

Why do people think this is anathema? Breast-feeding advocates will tell you that supplementing can damage your supply of breastmilk. But if I’m not at home all the time with my child – or if I am at home, but am busy with my other children – isn’t it best to give my child some formula as opposed to none? Why is breast-feeding versus formula feeding put to parents as an all-or-nothing choice? And why are we made to feel ashamed for giving anything less than 100percent  to our children?

Lactation consultant Heather Kelly knows breast-feeding is best – but also feels that the choice of “either/or”  posed to new mothers is a false dichotomy. It’s a misconception, she told me, that every mother can make enough breastmilk for their baby. Most women can, but some women can’t due to scant breast tissue, breast surgery, medical complications, etc.

“We also have a very, very polarized view of breast-feeding in our culture; that is to say, you are either fully or exclusively breastfeeding  and offering no formula at all, or you are a complete failure, “ Kelly said.

"The truth is, formula can co-exist with breastfeeding, as long as the mother's supply is properly maintained and managed,” she added.

“If you are a mother with no nursing problems, a good supply, and a desire to get a break from breast-feeding, it is not ashealthy a choice to bring in formula as it is to pump your own breastmilk and give it to the baby in a bottle,” Kelly said.  “This is simply a medical fact.”

But you know something? For this mom (and baby), it’s not the end of the world either.

Jordana Horn is a TODAY Moms contributor, lawyer, journalist, writer and mother of three. Sometimes, she even sleeps.