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Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding and the Need for Grace

breastfeeding vs formula

I am an American mom living overseas in North Africa. My husband and I moved here over 7 years ago, and my two children were born here. Having children in another country can be intimidating even if you just consider the delivery process, but it can also be intimidating to navigate the cultural differences on the best methods to care for one’s child, specifically the popular baby topic - Breastfeeding vs Formula Feeding

Something that surprised me right away once I had children here was how freely everyone feels to give you their parenting advice, “it’s too cold, cover their heads, close that window or they will catch a cold, don’t eat that, feed them like this!” On the other hand, I have found it a sweet surprise how warmly and lovingly strangers treat my children.  

Children are a priority and a beautiful blessing, and it is shown by the way they give unhindered affection and attention to children even when they first meet.  I have loved having children in a different context than my own because my understanding of ‘how it should be done’ has been expanded and narrowed in ways I would never have had in America.

We all look to those who have gone before us when we try to grasp the intricacies of parenting our little ones.  It is natural we should do so.  But, how do we know who is right, when everyone seems to have differing opinions, even within our own culture, let alone differing opinions around the world?

There are a million things to decide when becoming a parent, it is just simply put, completely overwhelming. I would like to tackle just one of those decisions, breastfeeding vs formula feeding, and share my thoughts on it. Not to convince you really of a particular choice, but to give you the opportunity for expanding and narrowing the ever changing view of “how it should be done.”  

One of the biggest culturally shocking stories I heard when I was pregnant with my first child was from an American friend of mine living in my neighborhood. She was pregnant with her third child, her first two were born in the States, this was her first one born overseas. When the pain was just right she headed to the clinic to deliver her 3rd child.  

The delivery went smoothly with no complications. She delivered a beautiful and healthy baby girl. The little girl was taken to be washed and weighed and after her first nursing attempt the nurses took the baby to the nursery so the two parents could get a few hours of sleep. A few hours had passed when the mom woke up wondering when her newest addition would be brought back to her room.  

After looking at the clock she asked the nurses if they could bring her baby to her room to nurse. Twenty minutes later she was still waiting for the nurses to return.

Luckily, this mom had a good friend with her who spoke the language fluently and understood the culture well. So, the friend went to inquire at the nursery. When the friend found the nursery, full of happy sleeping babies, she searched the sweet faces for the little girl.

There she was wrapped warmly and sleeping. She told the nurses that her Mom was waiting for her in her room. The nurses insisted the baby was fine and did not need to go up to the room to nurse, because they had given her the country’s traditional drink in a bottle, sweet tea.

That’s right you read it correctly, tea - green, mint, sugary tea - for that little one’s first day of life!  

You can imagine the shock the American family experience upon learning about this! Perhaps, needless to say, the little one was not sent to the nursery again during their hospital stay.

This is a funny story now that we tell between our friends, just how different our cultures can be, and you never know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t funny in the moment.  It was unexpected, it was not part of the Mom’s plan, and it wasn’t what she thought was best.  

I tell that story because I think in parenting, we can gather all the information available to us, and make the best decisions possible according to that information, but there are always circumstances, environment, and the unexpected that can happen to change our best intentions.  

Sometimes we have to make a decision in parenting and then suddenly adjust it as circumstances arise around us.  Decisions in parenting are rarely stagnant, they are constantly evolving- even medically proven parenting techniques change over time.

When we consider decisions like breastfeeding vs formula feeding, it is important to look to those who have gone before us, to ask doctors, to get all the facts and to make the best decision we can - and most importantly, leave room to adjust as circumstances and the unexpected arise. 

It may be the right decision to breastfeed for all the health benefits, but what if that suddenly comes at the cost of a Mom who has constant mastitis infections, which results in unrelenting stress, which leads to low milk production and so on?  

Maybe formula is the right choice if a child isn’t gaining weight, but what then when the child refuses formula, or formula is not available in the part of the country in which you live, or you cannot afford formula? There is only so much we can plan for and research as parents, but we cannot say definitively that there is a right way here.

I often think we must remind ourselves as parents, that when we make a decision we hope and pray it is the right decision- and that this decision is not forever, it is for that particular season considering all the factors available.

The tea in a bottle story is quite an extreme end of the spectrum when talking about breastfeeding vs formula, because let’s all be honest - tea ain’t anywhere close to formula.  So, when considering the spectrum of options, let us leave tea out!  

But, I do think we can gain some wisdom in that there are some definitively wrong answers when it comes to what is healthy for our children.  There is a line when making decisions where gray turns to black. I do not want to argue that anything goes as long as you think it’s ok. That is not true. It is never okay to abuse a child, to neglect a child, etc. There are some clear lines we can cross as parents.  But, I want to create a space where those “wrong” answers are fewer than we think.

For example, what is right and wrong when it comes to naps for a baby?

Naturally, we think well, there is freedom to swaddle or not, nap in a crib or maybe co-sleep, sleep with an aid or not, but as Americans generally we would say you would never leave your child unattended while napping, or left to sleep in below freezing temperatures- it would be simply wrong.  Right?  And yet, in many Nordic countries they place their babies wrapped up in the stroller outside to sleep in the freezing cold while they go inside, we are talking out in the snow and ice! It is considered a good environment for naps, and the perfect temperature to ensure long, deep sleeps. But Americans would never consider doing that!  So, who is wrong?

I present this to you because I want us as parents to give ourselves space.  Space to make the best decision possible, and adjust as needed. To leave a lot in the gray, that for another Mom next door their best decision may not be yours. To consider what we think is simply not an option, may be a good option for another.  To know there are some black and white decisions, but perhaps fewer than we realize.  To give each other and especially ourselves grace.

The decision you make today may need to be changed tomorrow and both can be right.  My experience overseas leads me to believe there are many ways to care for your children, many ways to parent, and many things that feel uncomfortable to me but are completely within the realm of loving and acceptable to others.

It is a funny and confusing thing considering what is best for your child. There are so many opinions out there! Certainly it’s okay to have our opinions and to share those opinions and advice with others!  But, we must be careful to share our thoughts with grace, because as parents it is not just the differing of opinions that are hard to navigate as you try to discern what is best for you and your child.

It is hard to navigate the shame associated with meeting expectations.  The shame of not being the perfect Mom.  The shame of not making the right choice. The weight of being the decision maker. The heaviness from how much time have we spent in our own heads, mulling over the thousands of decisions whether big or small? The weight of deciding should they go down for a nap, are they tired, are they sick, should I call the doctor, should I change the routine, how hot is too hot, what if the milk bag is leaking, how do I make their arms stay in that thing, what time is it, did I feed on the left or right last time?  

Endless. Hours. Of. Decision. Making.  It is all overwhelming.

Let us not add shame on one another or on ourselves to declare there is more black and white than there is.

Let’s leave space for the gray, leave space for grace, leave space to admit we don’t know all the circumstances surrounding someone’s decision, and we cannot prepare for the unexpected. And well, this decision to breastfeed or use formula is just one more decision. It typically is not one that is just decided one time and done. Each time your baby decides they won’t nurse, or the schedule changes, or their weight isn’t right, or you are taking medicine, or it just isn't working… we have to make the choose and the decision over and over every time with new variables to consider.  

Let me just take this chance to say, I get it friend, and I extend grace for you and for me to make different decisions- to both live happily in the gray.  It is so exhausting to have to weigh the options over and over, and figure out the right decision.  

Let me also say to you, you’re doing it. You are doing the right thing, because you are weighing the options, considering the variables, and you are doing your best to make the right decision for you and your family.  I am so proud of you. That is no small task, and I believe you are doing your very best Mom.  

There are a million things we consider like breastfeeding vs formula, we consider all the doctor opinions, all the mom opinions, all the books that say different things, and what about how other cultures do it - is it wrong just cause its very different?  No one person has all the answers, but you have the most important opinion because you know you, and you know your child the best.  So give yourself grace to make that decision, and give yourself grace to change it tomorrow. Remind yourself, that this is the right decision for right now and congratulate yourself for making that decision and doing your best.

Let us allow ourselves the freedom to be unique not equal.  If we were all equal, then there would be just one decision that is right.  But we aren’t all equal, no one life looks the same, there is no one size fits all in life, we each have differing needs and wants.  Give yourself the freedom to consider all the factors, even the ones that surprised you today.  

Also, remind yourself you are not alone simply because your parenting looks a little different.  We are in this together, we are parents, we are doing our best, and we can live in the gray together. The gray space where decisions are not easy. That there is no real “right” way, but there can be wrong ways.  That it’s messy and not perfect. That it may be one answer for one season and a totally different answer for another. That just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you should. That we live most our days in the gray, not in the black and white.  Little in life is black and white - when we expand our horizons we realize that different (though initially looks crazy) can be good, beautiful, and have lots of truth.  

We navigate the gray with grace.  Grace for ourselves.  Grace for others.  Grace that we could be wrong, but believing we are doing the best we can - and others are too.  If we believe that for the most part, all of us are doing the best we can, then we begin to see the beauty.  Both in breastfeeding and formula.  By offering ourselves and others grace, we create a safe space for growth, for change, for wisdom, for failure which produces perseverance and learning opportunities.  So, as you consider all the pros and cons, offer yourself grace. Consider all the things, not just the medical side, and make the best decision you can, and leave room to change.

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Grace King

Grace King, author

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