A Father's Case Against Breast-Feeding

It may be the healthiest choice for a baby...but not necessarily for sleep-deprived parents.

It may be the healthiest choice for a baby...but not necessarily for sleep-deprived parents.

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My son is amazing.

Thomas is practically reading Oh, Daddy! to me, and he's only 23 months old (almost two, for those of you without kids). He's off the charts in height, and he's well above average for weight-enough to be strong, but, you know, not an overweight child. Not Thomas.

He helps me unload the dishes. He helps my wife fold the laundry. He's even more incredible when you consider that he's accomplished all this, at such an early age, in spite of his troubled upbringing. Thomas grew up on formula, the stuff Michael Bloomberg is trying to keep away from mothers and infants in New York's hospitals.

Betsy really wanted to breastfeed. She tried. Really hard. It wasn't easy. There were problems with the "latch" and with Thomas getting enough to eat. We went to a lactation consultant, rented a pump, and were up every two hours for a hazy routine of turning on the machine, attaching the tubes, applying the supplemental nipple system, and trying to feed a crying baby. There wasn't much milk, but there were plenty of tears.

Begrudgingly, we gave up—I'm owning the "we" because it was a team effort—and bought a Costco-sized pack of Enfamil. We brought it home, shook up a batch, and noticed the comforting words placed prominently across the front of the box: "Experts agree breastfeeding is best." Thanks. We needed that. Betsy really needed it. She already thought she'd failed.

I've never seen a sticker on the outside of a box of frozen chicken nuggets that says "experts agree, feeding your child chicken that's definitely chicken and not covered in breading is best." Our pediatrician told us it was no big deal to switch to formula. Do you think he'd say the same for a steady diet of fast food?

Thomas has always been a good sleeper (he excels at everything, remember?). When he was an infant he was kind enough to go at least three hours between meals. When Betsy was breastfeeding, that meant we ONLY had to get up every couple hours to heat up the pump, and try and extract a few drops before his second midnight snack. Some friends had it much worse. One baby in our circle needed to be fed every hour. To give her child the "ideal," his mom didn't sleep for days.

When we switched to formula, everything changed. Only one of us got up. That meant that I could get up on my own and feed Thomas while his mom went for six hours of sleep. The advantages extended beyond quality REM sleep. I got to bond with my son. I got to sing him songs and tell him stories. Those hours of father-child bonding were a good thing. I got to take him to my parents' house for the day—without worrying about having enough milk or keeping it cold—and give Betsy an afternoon to rest. Betsy and I got to go away for a long weekend-to be together, to work on our marriage, something that was not just good for us, but good for the baby, too.

Experts may agree that breastfeeding is best. But experts will also tell you that mistakes happen when people are exhausted. What's better: a baby who's formula-fed and driven to story time by a mom who's had six hours of sleep, or a parent who hasn't had that much in a week?

The American Academy of Pediatrics says breastfeeding is the "ideal method of feeding and nurturing infants." Fine. I get it. So, what's the ideal car for teenagers to drive? What's the safest? Is it the used Civic or the new Volvo? Why is it that when it comes to being pregnant and raising babies there's no middle ground between "ideal" and shaken baby syndrome? Do divorce counselors guilt parents into staying together because it's "the ideal way to raise children"? I sure hope not.

Not long before his daughter was born, a friend of mine who doesn't live with his baby's mother told me that he didn't want to settle for making the best of the situation. He wanted to find the advantages that his daughter would have growing up with parents and families in two different homes. How refreshing. That's a line of thinking can be brilliantly extended to the formula debate.

Unfortunately, there isn't much debate to speak of. There's discussion of what medical professionals believe is the ideal—a group, it must be said, that changes its rigid positions, and once insisted that all babies sleep on their bellies, anathema to today's prescribed wisdom—and anxious parents trying to check every box on the list. I'm not seeing the kind of judgment from my peers that Hanna Rosin experienced (and wrote about at length in "The Case Against Breastfeeding" in The Atlantic in 2009). I'm seeing exhausted parents who are told there's only one right way.

What's missing in the conversation is perspective. Instead of focusing solely on the "ideal" way to feed a baby, people should be talking about the healthiest option for the family. That's in the best interest of the child.