Breastfeeding, formula and damned statistics

I read a headline the other day that made me happy.

Annoyingly I couldn’t let it go there so I had to delve a bit deeper, and now I’m a lot less happy. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Anyway. The headline was:

When breast ISN’T best: Feeding babies formula and breast milk immediately after birth can help mothers breastfeed for longer

At bloody last, I thought. A story about formula that doesn’t describe it as the spawn of Satan.

In fact, one could almost argue that, despite in this case formula being a means to an end which still very much involves breasts, it is *almost* a positive story, for a change. Something that doesn’t make us ladies who couldn’t breastfeed feel like complete shit, anyway.

The piece is based on an interesting study carried out by the University of California, which found that newborn babies who received small amounts of formula in the first few days, before their mothers’ milk “came in”, were more likely to then be breastfed for longer.

“Many mothers develop concerns about their milk supply, which is the most common reason they stop breastfeeding in the first three months,” said assistant professor Valerie Flaherman, who led the research, in the press release.

“But this study suggests that giving those babies a little early formula may ease those concerns and enable them to feel confident continuing to breastfeed.”

Yeah, that figures, I thought. And more importantly it’s one in the eye for the charming midwife who told me I’d “ruined” my son’s stomach lining by giving him formula in the first 2 days, following an impromptu trip to ICU because he genuinely wasn’t getting enough to eat.

The one big fucking elephant in the room is that the trial only looked at 40 babies.



Of those, around half got the mixed feed. So that’s 20 babies, in the entire world, determining this result.

I am literally banging my fists on the table here (it hurts) because I really, really want this to be significantly good news, and I don’t want to be rude about scientists because I’m not one so what do I know, but even I can’t gloss over the fact that this is a miniscule, piddling, itsywitsyteenyweenily microscopic study group.

This morning I took my toddler to a singing group at the local library. There were more babies shaking their rattles there than there were in this research.

Does this mean I can scientifically claim that 21st century babies prefer Wheels on the Bus to Twinkle Little Star? I’d definitely like to. But deep down I know that it’s not really going to cut the mustard (and besides, I forgot to factor in Galumph Went the Little Green Frog. Which is an actual song. Seriously).

The researchers kinda know it too. Another one, Thomas Newman, said it will be interesting to see whether the results still hold ” in future, larger studies and in other populations”.

So, um, perhaps a bit premature for the press release then? Sigh.


“one midwife told me that formula milk had one ingredient which was actually an animal’s sperm”

Hannah emailed me a couple of weeks ago. Her story is an absolutely classic case of the huge difference in pregnancy/postnatal care that new mums have to deal with… (I still can’t get over the animal sperm comment)



My son is now three and a half and a joy. I love being a mother – balancing a career and home life is a challenge but nothing compared to how it felt to becoming a new mum!

December 2009 I was induced on my due date as my blood pressure was high.

Daniel arrived by emergency C Section 24 hours later weighing 10lb 15oz – a bouncer.

The birth was a nightmare. Nothing prepared me for it.

Being the busy Christmas period at the hospital I felt I was being rushed through as they wanted to get home for the holidays.

I had decided to breastfeed after hearing about the benefits it would have and one midwife telling me that formula milk had one ingredient which was actually an animal’s sperm!

After a traumatic labour, the fact I couldn’t feel my legs after the operation and Daniel being so big it was difficult to position him to feed.  He wouldn’t take from me and I was confused.

Midwives came and went and each gave different advice. I remember one midwife being great, a lady from New Zealand who helped me keep focus.

Others weren’t so patient and I was left with a screaming hungry baby at times.

I needed my husband by my side, just to let me sleep if anything, but we were told he could only visit during visiting time.

I cried and felt hopeless. I wanted to be back home for Christmas Day too so I tried my hardest to cover up and show how well I was doing so I could be discharged.

After a successful feed I was allowed to leave which I did in the middle of heavy snow.

Home safe I relaxed until the next feeding time.

I couldn’t get him to latch.

I didn’t want to go back into the hospital so I didn’t want to contact the midwife – I just tried and tried to get him to feed.

After more tears and stress my husband made the decision to buy formula. We hadn’t thought of buying it before that point as I had expected to be able to feed straight away – everyone made out how natural it would be and it would be like second nature.

I remember staring out of the front window of our home with a screaming baby, watching the snow coming down and waiting for hubby  to come home.  He arrived with every pre-mixed formula on the market and bottles and sterilisers.

An hour later Daniel was asleep again and I was still awake crying, feeling like a total failure.

The following morning my usual midwife was on Christmas leave so a covering midwife came to the house on my husband’s instruction.

She said that I should feed him with formula, he’d be too big to feed with breast milk and that  I’d never keep up with him.

She then changed the subject, asked to see my c section scar and went on to tell me how I would always now have an overhang on my belly and how to clean the scar!

I was more determined than ever to breastfeed and even though I was told that once he’d had a bottle my milk would stop and he wouldn’t latch, this wasn’t the case.

The health visitor I had was my saving grace. She sat with me for an hour and helped me feed and sat with me while Daniel fed to see how long he went on for.  She told me to try feeding him whilst lying down and relaxing.

That evening I lay Dan beside me on the bed and he wriggled up and snuggled in for a good feed.  I was elated, I had done it.

For the next week that’s how I fed, lying down next to him on the bed and some days that’s all I could do was lay next to him.  Eventually I cracked the sitting up position after I had visions of me and Dan lying down in Ikea in times to come.

I managed to feed Daniel with a combination of bottle and breast for 9 months and I felt that was a huge achievement.

It hasn’t done him any harm.  We have a strong bond that has grown over time.

The further I get from the experience the less vivid the memories obviously but when expectant mothers ask me about my experience I tell them that “it’s all worth it”.

I have returned to the same hospital recently  following a miscarriage and found their aftercare was so much better than it had been after my son’s birth. Even though that visit was equally as stressful it’s not put me off trying again.

Read more stories in Birth, Boobs and Bad Advice – the book!