Newsletter #48:Why Formula is not the Answer for Struggling Breastfeeding Mothers

By BMSG Editorial Team

If you have been on the BMSG’s private Facebook support group, you might have seen our advisory to members not to recommend formula feeding in their comments and replies to mothers who post on the group. Perhaps you’re wondering – what’s up with that stand, and why? 

Typically, recommendations to give formula are quite common in threads which talk about a drop in milk supply or when mums are unable to match the amounts that their babies drink in a bottle. 

The BMSG’s stand is that formula feeding should only be an option where medically indicated. This may mean that a mother has a medical condition that renders her too unwell to feed her baby, or that human milk donations are not readily available. There can also be situations where both the mother and baby are warded in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and are unable to establish a breastfeeding relationship.

Echoing the Stand of the WHO

The stand that we follow is in line with the World Health Organization’s hierarchy of infant feeding. A mother’s own milk is naturally the top priority, but it may surprise you that donor milk from another mother is the second best option, whether it has been expressed or if baby is nursed directly from another lactating woman. This may seem foreign to us urban dwellers in (almost) squeaky clean Singapore, but if we think about the lack of clean water and sanitation in some environments and situations, it is clear what is the obvious and, often, the life-saving choice.

(For those who seek donor milk or who wants to donate excess milk, you can do a shout-out at our Facebook private group, or at the Human Milk 4 Human Babies Singapore public Facebook page.)

The truth of the matter is that although we do have access to clean water, breastfeeding is something that we need to preserve especially when a breastfeeding mother seeks support. In our comfortable lives, it  can be convenient for us to reach out for infant formula when breastfeeding challenges arise. However, there are a few reasons why providing formula may not be the best way to get over a breastfeeding challenge.

Feeding a breastfed baby with formula milk in a bottle can make a baby too full to latch from mum. [Stock Photo]
  1. Giving formula can make baby too full to latch on mummy’s breasts

    When a new mother is just starting out with breastfeeding, the apparent low milk volume is often easily mistaken for milk insufficiency or “low milk supply”. Formula is often quickly given as a stop-gap measure, as parents are afraid of dehydration. 

    However, it is important for parents to be aware of how much (or how little!) milk is actually needed by babies at this stage. Newborn tummies are tiny and need very little milk – at best, the size of a newborn’s tummy at birth is about the size of a shooter marble (3-5ml). Furthermore, newborns drink colostrum, which appears in low volume but is incredibly rich in nutrients. We are so used to the media portrayal of a full bottle of formula that it makes us uneasy to think that an infant may only need a few millilitres of breast milk! It‘s time to recalibrate and understand that in nature, newborns drink less than what we might expect.

    As a result, when a baby receives formula, often more is given than what the baby actually needs. Baby’s tummy can become distended, leading to baby feeling too full to nurse. We also know that newborns are sleepy beings so an uncomfortably full tummy may mean longer sleep before the next feed as baby’s body works to assimilate the harder-to-digest formula. This contributes to the cycle of the formula top-up trap where the mother constantly feels resigned that she just does not have enough milk.

    This can also happen when water or even too much top-up of mother’s milk is bottle fed to baby. Excessive water can cause toxicity in baby.
The estimated sizes of a newborn's tummy during the first month. [Credits: www.letmommysleep.com]
  1. Mother’s Supply will be Affected

    Naturally, when a mother chooses to supplement with formula, she needs to ensure that she is also removing milk from her breasts. Just like in economics, the demand (or milk drank) by the baby is the amount that is signalled to the body to produce – thus, the more baby drinks, the more the body produces.

    However, when the breast is replaced by a bottle, mothers often miss out on pumping and may not remove the amount that baby would need. It becomes necessary for the mother to play catch up by taking more time to pump and remove the amount that has been drunk.

    In the event that the mother does not return to latching her baby or is not able to express the amount of milk equivalent to that which baby drinks in the bottle, the mother is at risk of facing a dip in her supply. This will then sabotage her efforts to continue latching at the breasts because a drop in supply will make it hard for her baby to be satisfied at the breast. Inevitably, this is highly likely to lead to a premature end to breastfeeding when the mother is unable to catch up with expressing the amount of breastmilk that is required.

  2. There are risk of allergies with formula

    It can be tempting to provide a baby with formula in times of desperation but it is a temporary solution to a problem that can be fixed. While it is natural, breastfeeding is a skill that takes time to learn. With the right support, most mothers should be able to breastfeed. In the event when a mother is unable to provide breastmilk for her baby for whatever reason, it has also become socially acceptable to provide an alternative in the form of human milk donations.

    We don’t talk enough about this but there are babies in the world who cannot take formula milk. For a mother of a newborn, introducing formula milk for the first time can be a make-or-break moment. If the child has an undiscovered allergy to dairy or cow’s milk, there is always a possibility of an allergic reaction to the said formula milk.

    A newborn baby has a stomach that is vulnerable to pathogens. It is a built-in mechanism that prevents a baby from having harmful germs enter its system. Breastmilk has the natural ability to protect the linings of baby’s intestines as it forms a layer that prevents the intestines from absorbing these harmful stuff. But when you introduce formula or other substitutes that are not appropriate for a baby, this protective layer is destroyed.

    Babies then are at risk of developing digestive issues as well such as lactose intolerance, reflux and constipation, which can lead to discomfort in the baby.
  3. Economic sustainability of formula milk

    It can be “helpful” for a stressed-out mother at first to use formula, but as the breastfeeding journey begins to end prematurely, the baby will then become dependent solely on formula milk.

    We don’t know what the situation of the mother’s family is like when we suggest formula. Formula milk can be economically unsustainable for a family in the long run, should the family income be decreased. With a dried-up milk supply and a limited amount of powder left in the can, a mother may be forced to stretch out her baby’s feeding, or dilute her baby’s milk. In fact, this has happened and is already happening in Singapore, and even in more dire situations where the baby is very, very young. The baby will not be receiving enough nutrients to grow and develop properly.
Breastfeeding has to contend with formula milk companies, who invest in heavy marketing to parents. [Stock Photo]

We hope the explanation above has provided a clearer picture on the reasons why formula feeding is not always the one-size-fits-all solution for mothers who are still trying to overcome breastfeeding challenges. We, all of us as women, help the mother to help the baby – it is a community effort.

Newsletter #47: What an IBCLC Will Never Say

By BMSG Editorial Committee

Editor’s Note: This article is meant to help mothers recognise errant or misconceived breastfeeding advice that they may receive from individuals who claim to be breastfeeding professionals. Ultimately, we hope this article empowers mothers to discern between well-meaning and problematic advice.


What is a Lactation Consultant?

If you are a breastfeeding mother, chances are, you might have been asked to contact a lactation consultant or LC for short. This is usually the case when a breastfeeding mother is facing challenges that go beyond what a peer counsellor or lactation nurse is able to help with. 

In such situations, mothers are strongly encouraged to seek help from a certified lactation consultant. Currently, International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) are the only breastfeeding professionals who can provide mothers with assistance to more serious breastfeeding issues such as oral restrictions and latching difficulties. IBCLC is also the highest qualification standards for lactation certification globally.

Unfortunately, the term “Lactation Consultants” are not exactly protected. Anyone can call themselves a “lactation consultant” but to become an IBCLC, one would have completed the requirements to be eligible to sit for and passed a rigorous exam, prove continuing education every year and accumulated relevant number of hours before they can legally use the term.

You may need to see a Lactation Consultant if you have breastfeeding-related queries that are of a more serious nature. It is important to find one who is knowledgeable and makes you feel safe. [Stock Photo]

Recognise the Alarm Bells

So if you are meeting someone who claims she is a lactation consultant or a lactation specialist, paying attention to this list of errant comments may help you to decide if the advice you are receiving from the individual is sound:

1) “Your milk is too thin and of poor quality.”

Breastmilk is made up of many components and unlike commercialised milk or milk powders, breastmilk will separate into many layers when settled. At the start of a feed after a letdown, milk that is expressed from the breast may take a watery texture. It may be natural for anyone who is uninformed to conclude that this is a sign of poor milk quality. But once we understand that milk is made up of part water and part fat, both of which are important as these help to quench a baby’s thirst AND keep them full all in one feed, the appearance of a mother’s milk rarely is any cause for concern.  This is akin to the appetiser-main course-dessert analogy where breastmilk fulfils all the necessary nutritional needs for babies.

If you were to place a bottle of expressed breastmilk and let it stand for a while, you will notice that the breastmilk will separate into layers. The fattier layers will climb to the top (characterised by a layer of fat or oils) and the watery layers will sink to the bottom.

2) “Your baby is too lazy to latch.”

It must be heart-breaking to know that your baby has been labelled “lazy” at such a young age! Such advice can never be further from the truth. The fact is that a percentage of babies may face some difficulties or challenges to latch, either due to an oral obstruction (tongue ties, lip ties, missing palate etc.) or due to interventions that affect baby’s ability to latch (e.g. using a bottle before breastfeeding is well-established, using a nipple shield or a pacifier very early on in baby’s life, or mum having taken epidural in labour).

A baby is never lazy! But they can be taught to latch and if they have oral conditions that prevents them from latching well, their situation can be improved with medical interventions. After all, especially for a newborn, breastfeeding requires practice. Some babies may have very small mouths that may need them to put in considerable effort to latch on mummies’ breasts.

A baby who has trouble latching is not lazy; something is preventing them from latching well. [Stock Photo]


3) “You need to pump to see how much milk you are making.”

Pumping to check your supply is inaccurate as a pump is never able to extract as much milk as a baby can latch. The best way to check your supply is to monitor your baby’s wet and dirty diapers, weight gain as well as level of activity. Pumping too early can also trigger an onset of problems such as oversupply in the early days, which can inevitably lead to complications such as blocked ducts and mastitis.

4) “You must introduce bottles at 3 weeks to prevent bottle rejection.”

This is not true. Early introduction of bottles (anytime before 4 to 6 weeks) can interfere with a baby’s ability to latch at the breast. Parents should wait before introducing bottles because babies may develop a preference for the fast flow of the bottle. They may also experience nipple confusion where they are unable to latch at the breast or become too impatient to wait for a letdown at the breast. While it is true that breastfed babies can reject the bottle, there are other ways to provide expressed breastmilk (EBM) to babies when the time comes such as when mothers return to work. Alternatives such as cup, spoon, syringe and straw feedings have worked with many babies. Babies can also receive EBM through age-appropriate sippy cups.

5) “Pump after latching to prevent blocked ducts.”

There is no need to pump after each time you latch your baby. If your baby has emptied your breast during the session, you can continue to offer your baby the other breast at the next feeding session. Pumping unnecessarily after each latch can signal to your body to make more milk than what your baby is actually receiving. This can lead to complications such as oversupply and subsequently blocked ducts and mastitis. If you still feel that your breast is not fully empty after a feed, use breast compressions during the feed to activate the milk flow once you sense it has slowed down. This can be seen when baby falls asleep at the breast. Baby will automatically unlatch or fall into a deep sleep once he or she has received enough milk. Some mothers also hand express the excess milk and store them for later use. As long as your baby is feeding efficiently, there is no need to pump after every latch.

Giving baby full access to the breast without time limits means allowing baby to receiving a full feed from the breast. This will also be helpful for your supply as an empty breast signals the brain to produce more milk. [Stock Photo]

6) “Feed baby on both sides for 15 minutes each.”

The time that baby takes to feed from the breasts is not important. Latch on demand and allow baby to drink from the breast for as long as he or she wants. Limiting time at the breast (or unlatching too quickly) may prevent baby from getting a full feed from the breast, which may consequently mean preventing baby from getting the fattier part of the milk which is present towards the end of a feed (i.e. an emptier breast). An empty breast also stimulates the brain to urge the body to produce more milk, hence helping to maintain your supply.

Knowledge is Power

With all that has been said, at the end of the day, it would be helpful for mothers to seek evidence-based information and to talk to as individuals as possible before making important decisions for your breastfeeding journey. It can be overwhelming and also demoralising to receive comments that may be far from accurate but knowing how to sieve out errant information and to seek opinions from different sources will greatly help you to decide what is best for yourself and your baby.

A lot of times, advice can be well-meaning. It can also be problematic if it is actually misinformation or does not help you to make a well-informed decision. It is therefore highly important that parents understand the techniques behind breastfeeding and do some fact-checking before arriving at a decision. A wrong move can greatly impact what happens subsequently.