Fed isn’t Best, Fed is the Absolute Minimum

Whew, you got past the title because you are either really pissed, or you are super rah-rah breastfeeding.  Either way, please stay with me.

I know it’s popular to say “fed is best” as a way of supporting all mothers with infants and disarming the “mommy wars”.  I have so many problems with this statement I’m having a hard time knowing where to start.  But let’s dive into my first point, which is that fed is not best.  Fed is the minimum that we provide our children.  If we do nothing else, we must feed them in order to keep them alive, because for several years they are incapable of providing sustenance for themselves.  Providing our children the minimal nourishment they require to survive is not the best that we can do for them, it is the minimum of what we should do as parents, seeing as we brought them into this world.  I really don’t know how I can say this any more clearly, I honestly feel the point is so obvious, that to belabor it would be an insult to my intelligence and yours.

Second, this “fed is best” campaign is in response to a “breast is best” campaign.  Short, rhyming statements are intended to help spread the word and stick in people’s brains so that the information is easily recalled.  Every OB/GYN office can’t have a poster up on the wall with a paragraph explaining how breastfeeding is the best nutritional and psychological feeding option for your infant, BUT sometimes due to a whole host of medical complications mothers cannot breastfeed their infants–in which case there are necessary alternatives for feeding, and formula is best for that baby.  We should not need that caveat!  Are we incapable of understanding that if a child is highly allergic to its mother’s milk, the harms obviously outweigh the rewards of breastfeeding, and in that instance, formula is best for that child?  Or that children who are born premature often have  a variety of issues with feeding of all kinds, because they weren’t meant to be out in the world yet, and their mothers’ bodies weren’t ready to feed them, and so breastfeeding may not be an option?  It is implied; it is understood; it is reasonable to expect that when we say “breast is best,” it is for most infants, most mothers, in most situations.  I’ve known mothers who physically could not breastfeed their babies for a variety of reasons.  They did do what was best for their children.  We cannot make blanket statements about every situation and we cannot account for every possibility in a simple statement intended to spread awareness.  This is simply not possible.

Let’s also examine why we need things like “breast is best” and #normalizebreastfeeding.  These phrases don’t exist to shame moms who formula feed. That is not the point!  We need these hashtags and short sayings because as a country, we are recovering from an unfortunate period of our medical history where doctors were telling mothers that formula is superior to breast milk.  As a result, there were generations of women who thought that breastfeeding was disgusting or unnecessary and were not able to guide or educate their own daughters on how to breastfeed when they became mothers.  It is a scientific fact that breastfeeding is a superior option for most babies.  Therefore, “breast is best” is not intended to shame mothers who choose to formula feed, it is trying to get the word out so that more and more mothers will breastfeed!

How someone feels about their life choices is not the most important thing.  We cannot take it upon ourselves to take responsibility for how other people feel about their life choices.  By shielding others from decisions they’ve made and of which they may not be proud, we are denying them the opportunity to improve. Some mothers don’t learn about the wonders of breastfeeding until baby #2 or #3.  That’s ok!  I have been able to exclusively breastfeed my child for the past 9 months and for that I am very blessed.  There is a possibility that with my next child my body will betray me and I will have to supplement.  If that happens, I will still know that 100% breastfed is the ideal.  But we don’t live in an ideal world, and life doesn’t hand us ideal circumstances.  We do our very best with what life hands us.  And if that’s what we have done, then we cannot resent the ideal for existence.  If someone has chosen to formula feed their infant in spite of all the research they’ve read and is very proud of their decision, then I cannot for the life of me see why they would care in the least bit that I am an avid advocate of breastfeeding.  It is not my job to tell them how to feed their infant.  I will always be an avid supporter of breastfeeding while being respectful of the fact that other moms may choose not to breastfeed.  However, I am not going to lie and say that “fed is best”.  Because dammit, fed is the minimum.

June 12, 2017 Update 

I’ve been wanting to revisit this post for some time. I’m leaving the original post because I think it’s important that we all admit and acknowledge that are views are evolving as we understand more of the world and of ourselves. 

I will admit that I don’t think the above post is an entirely balanced and comprehensive view on the subject of infant nutrition.  As I address in my post Breastfeeding: System Failures not Mom Failures, the “why” is important.  It’s not simply that mothers don’t want to breastfeed, although that does exist too.  And as these obstacles exist, the idea that we need to put pressure solely on the mother is not only not fair, it is in reality not helpful. Pressure truly needs to be applied to the women’s and maternal health sectors to provide adequate information and support. And finally, just as I think that “fed is best” is not an accurate statement, in some cases “breast is best” is not an accurate statement. The truth is always more nuanced. 

And finally, just as I think that “fed is best” is not an accurate statement, in some cases “breast is best” is not an accurate statement. The truth is always more nuanced. What do I really wish for? I wish for a world where we have infant nutrition specialists who are neither militant lactation specialists nor formula salespeople, but rather baby advocates. Providers who can grasp the comprehensive needs of an infant and then help the mother make the right decision for her baby.

I still can’t get behind “Fed is Best”, but I can embrace a more complex and nuanced conversation than the thoughts I’ve laid out above.

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4 thoughts on “Fed isn’t Best, Fed is the Absolute Minimum

  1. While it’s true that feeding our babies is among the absolute minimum requirements for successful parenting, it is also true that a pithy slogan calling into question whether we are doing the best we can by our babies is shaming and damaging. Who doesn’t want the absolute best for their child? Who, in those early days of fear and insecurity, when our bodies are recovering and our brains are exhausted, when we are so filled with love and hope and worry, would want to do anything other that what everyone is telling them is “best”? It’s easy to say that the exceptions should be obvious. Obviously, if you are only making 1-2oz of breastmilk per day and your baby needs 20, then your breast is not best. Obviously, if your baby is losing weight at an alarming rate and is missing milestones, then your breast is not best. But when it is *you* and *your* baby and everyone is telling you that breastfeeding is not just “natural” but also proven to give your baby the best possible chances, the best possible outcome, and you as a mother cannot provide that? That is a time when “breast is best” cuts right to the bone. I’m a member of a community of women for whom breast was not best and I don’t know a single one of them who doesn’t support breastfeeding mothers, who wouldn’t hesitate to stand up for the right to breastfeed everywhere. We love breastfeeding. We love it so much that it cuts us all to the core that we weren’t able to do it. We love it so much that not being able to sent many of us into deep post partum depression. We want everyone to breastfeed whenever and wherever they choose. We also want space in the community of mothers for our experience. It’s clear to all of us that “breast is best” isn’t *intended* to shame. It’s intended to undo decades of damage done by an unsupportive medical establishment and build community among breastfeeding mothers. But there are many, many people who take it literally. Some of those people are health care providers. Some of them are LLL leaders. Some of them believe that a woman who isn’t breastfeeding is lazy and just didn’t try hard enough, wasn’t Mom enough. “Fed is best” isn’t intended to be literal either. It’s intended to make space, to relieve some of the pressure, to celebrate those of us who came out the other side of a devastating loss, still grieving our breastfeeding relationship, because fulfilling that absolute minimum with milk from our own bodies was impossible.

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    1. This is a very thoughtful and well said response and I thank you for sharing it with me. I guess I’m seeing a lot of misinformation going around and using the “Fed is Best” mantra as a cover. Articles that are encouraging moms to introduce solids too early, or encouraging mothers to do what is “convenient” for them (I have a problem with this, because I think if convenience is important to you, then motherhood probably isn’t for you). I think that generally people are a little less judgmental about birthing situations than breastfeeding, but I did experience a medicated birth despite wanting so very much to avoid all medical interventions. I had a doula who tried to hide her judgement of our decision to accept intervention. I still believe that natural births are best in many situations. I also know that mothers and babies were dying in childbirth prior to modern medicine, and that intervention is necessary to prevent those deaths. I also know that it simply cannot be possible, given our imperfect bodies, that we all breastfeed. I guess what I’m saying is… how do we support each other in our imperfect lives, our imperfect bodies, and imperfect circumstances without feeding the flame of misinformation?

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      1. Mothers and babies are still dying from birth, the medical takeover of birthing will never fix that. Since the formation of the acog in 1951, our international ranking for infant mortality has been steadily declining. Other than that, I agree with your statement. I never liked either saying. I’ve nursed babies for 13 of the last 19 years and have always thought mothers should do what they feel is best, regarding all aspects of parenting. I dislike blanket statements, not because I can’t see through them, but because others can’t seem to not take them to heart. Just love your kids, kindness and understanding are so much more important in parenting (in my opinion ) than what they were fed as infants.

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  2. Fed is adequate. Breast is best. Adequate means “satisfactory or acceptable in quality or quantity.” Best means “of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.” Saying breast is best does not mean that breast is the only way. But the fact is that breastfeeding provides many benefits and advantages that formula cannot.

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