If you’re struggling to maintain an adequate breast milk supply for your baby or can’t breastfeed for some reason, formula may seem like your only option. However, it is not that simple. There are alternatives to formula for moms who can’t (or don’t want to) breastfeed to still give their baby breast milk.
Before anyone gets worked up. please understand that there is no judgement here. It’s YOUR body. It’s YOUR baby. We want moms to know what ALL their options are so no matter what choice they make, it is an educated one.
Why Alternatives to Formula Matter
Unlike all the hype out there promoting “Fed is Best,” it actually does make a difference what you feed your baby. Think about it: If you feed yourself Doritos all day, is that the same as nutritious food? Can you just eat junk all day and say “Fed is best” for YOU with a straight face? Of course not!
We all know that making good, healthy choices for the food we put in our body is better than other less-healthy choices. The bottom line is: Breast milk is superior to formula. It is BETTER. Even the formula companies say it! That is not a debate. Formula is JUST a substitute. It is not “best” and but it is “adequate” and certainly is better than NOT feeding your baby (or giving the BABY the Doritos!)
So you may still find that supplementing with or using formula exclusively is the personal choice for your family…and if you do, that is your choice. (Again…no judgement!) However, we encourage you to consider all of your options of still providing the added benefits of breast milk (Stube, 2009) before settling on a decision.
Related Article: Supplementing with Formula – What Breastfeeding Moms Should Know
Exclusive pumping is often the ideal solution if you can produce enough milk to nourish your baby but have obstacles to breastfeeding. You can follow many of the same schedules and feeding strategies as breastfeeding moms, but you use a pump for every feeding rather than your baby. There are many reasons that you may choose this method:
- A medical issue prevents you from breastfeeding.
- Your baby is a preemie or has a medical condition that prevents him or her from breastfeeding. Many moms with preemies experience a delay before their body starts to produce breast milk, but many are later able to feed naturally.
- Your work schedule or other time-related issues prevent you from breastfeeding most or all of the time.
- Breastfeeding causes pain or discomfort for you and/or the baby.
- You simply choose not to breastfeed for your personal reasons.
Regardless of the motivations that lead you to consider exclusive pumping, there are two benefits to doing this rather than jumping right into exclusive formula feeding:
- Pumping sends the message to your body that breast milk is still in high demand. This allows you to maintain a healthy flow of milk just in case your baby is later able to breastfeed. If you believe that your inability to breastfeed is temporary or would like to have the option of trying later, then exclusive pumping is likely your ideal choice.
- Breast milk offers the best nourishment and protection for your growing baby that nothing else can. (Martin, 2016.) Your body naturally creates substances that will protect your baby from disease while allowing him or her to grow at a healthy rate. As your baby’s nutritional needs change, your body naturally changes the milk that you produce. Formula manufacturers are always finding ways to mimic some of the substances only found in breast milk, but your milk remains the most powerful substance that you can feed your little one that they cannot re-create. If you can produce the milk, then you already have what your baby needs to grow.
In order for exclusive pumping to work, you need to pump and store enough milk to ensure that your baby has what he or she needs each day. This starts by selecting a double electric pump with properly sized suction cups. You will spend a lot of time connected to this machine, so you deserve the highest-quality pump that you can afford. Some women also opt for hands-free models that allow them to fold laundry, change channels on the television, or even play with their babies while they pump.
The next step is to set a pumping schedule that will work for your personal life and your household. How often you need to pump and how much milk you need to produce each day depends on the age of your baby. Here is a quick guide that will give you a good idea of what you need:
- Newborns up to 3 months: A newborn baby eats every two to three hours naturally, so many pumping mothers try to pump to that frequency. You should pump no less than eight times, and many women find around 10 daily sessions is best. Once you get started, you can adjust your pumping sessions according to your milk supply. If your supply is a bit low, you may need to pump more often. If you produce more than you need, then you may get away with pumping a bit less.
- Over 3 months: The older your baby gets, the less you should have to pump. You may pump five or six times per day when your baby is three or four months only, only to find that you only pump two times per day when your baby turns one. Many mothers have transitioned to solid food around the first birthday and will stop pumping at that point.
Regardless of how many times you pump, make sure that you completely empty both breasts each time. This will signal to your body that your baby is using every bit of milk produced, encouraging your system to continue at that rate or to even pick the frequency to create more milk.
Related Article: Exclusive Pumping: Why How and Tips for Success
Keep in mind that every baby goes through growth spurts, so there are going to be days when your little one just demands more milk than usual. It’s always a good idea to pump a bit extra daily and develop a freezer stash to ensure that you always have milk on hand. Make sure that your caregiver has extra milk at all times as well because you never know when you will have a delay picking your baby up or when your baby will hit those growth spurts.
There was a time when a mother unable to breastfeed would pass her baby off to a hired wet nurse to do the job. That is no longer common practice, but many mothers in our modern world do share breast milk. It’s not uncommon to hear stories where a mother producing an abundance of milk helps a neighbor, sister, or complete stranger who is struggling with milk supply. If you don’t know anyone willing to do that or are uncomfortable with the idea for safety reasons, technology has created a better option: breast milk banks.
Studies of infant feeding suggest that if moms cannot provide their own breast milk for babies, this is the next best choice, NOT formula (Martin, 2016; Institute of Medicine, 2004.) Because of this, moms are starting to make the choice to use the donor milk instead of formula.
These banks are popping up all over the country, and many are operated through hospitals to ensure that preemies and sick babies can easily access the milk that they need to heal and grow. You may also consider donor milk if you adopt a newborn baby and want to give him or her the health advantages that come with breastfeeding. From strengthening the immune system to increasing the chances that your baby will develop healthfully and suffer fewer mental challenges, there are proven reasons to feed breast milk for the first year of life whenever possible.
So, how does this work?
The milk bank carefully screens each donor to ensure that only healthy women producing safe milk are admitted into the program. All of the milk delivered from each donor is then carefully screened, ensuring that recipients only receive fresh, nourishing breast milk that is safe for the baby in every way. The milk is also pasteurized to kill any bacteria that may harm a baby.
There are many reasons that women donate breast milk. Many do so after losing their own baby because they want their milk to nourish another baby rather than going to waste. Others simply want to donate because they have the ability to produce far more than their babies can consume. Rather than dumping good milk down the drain or ending up with a freezer stash that is too large for reason, they donate to other mothers.
While donations are now being taken in most areas of the country and banks are becoming more widely available, securing donor milk isn’t as simple as walking into a bank and picking it up from a shelf. While you can research banks in your area online, you can’t just sign up and have it shipped to your home.
The supply of donated milk is carefully monitored to ensure that preemies and babies with an urgent medical need are supplied first, and this is done by requiring mothers to get a prescription from a doctor. If you’re struggling with breastfeeding or have been told that it’s not an option for you at this point, talk to your doctor to see if donated milk is an option for you. It could make a substantial difference in your baby’s health for the short and long term.
Hire a Wet Nurse
This is a practice that happened for centuries….long before formula was even made! While many mothers now find donated milk more convenient and practical, there is still a place for wet nursing in our world today. For starters, not every mother has access to donated milk. You may find that milk just isn’t readily available in your area, especially if your baby isn’t considered in urgent need for medical purposes.
Traditionally, a wet nurse directly breastfed babies on behalf of their mothers. Today, many people consider direct donations from one woman to another for the purpose of bottle feeding to fit into this general concept as well. Some mothers also engage in cross-nursing, which happens when a mother breastfeeds her own baby but also allows another woman to breastfeed her baby at times. This may be done out of necessity or convenience.
However it happens, one mother produces milk for the good of another woman’s baby. It’s one of the most powerful ways that a woman can give to another family because she is literally guarding another baby against illness and life challenges.
Related Article: What is a Wet Nurse and Common Questions About Wet Nursing
If you know a breastfeeding mother who produces more milk than her baby needs and is willing to serve as your wet nurse, then you may feel more open to this idea than someone who would have to hire a wet nurse that they don’t know personally. Either way, you want to think about the quality and safety of the milk offered to your baby. You don’t have a milk bank screening the donor and every drop of milk, and the milk isn’t pasteurized to kill bacteria and viruses before your baby feeds. This makes wet nursing a bit riskier than using donated milk.
If you’re going to connect with a woman you know to serve as your wet nurse, ask questions regarding her diet, medications that she may take, and health issues that may impact the quality of her milk. Make sure that you have no concerns about her lifestyle or use of drugs, tobacco, or alcohol before agreeing to this arrangement. In many cases, looking at the health of her baby can give you some clues as to the quality of the milk.
In many cases, wet nurses are women who have lost their babies who have preemies in the NICU who cannot feed naturally. While this is a heartbreaking scenario that introduces an emotional component to the arrangement, these women often make the best wet nurses because they thoroughly appreciate what they’re doing for your baby.
While there are situations where these arrangements work well, keep in mind that the some doctors discourage cross-nursing and wet nursing for the following reasons:
- Babies at different ages need breast milk with different compositions. This is only a problem if your wet nurse is also feeding babies at different ages than your baby.
- The added demand on the wet nurse may interfere with her own milk supply. This isn’t always the case because some women just naturally produce more milk than one baby needs.
- There’s a risk that the baby will receive a virus or bacteria from the wet nurse that wouldn’t have been received from the birth mother. Since there is no regulation or screening for wet-nursed milk, there is no way to ensure the safety of the milk.
- All breasts work differently, so cross-breastfed babies may grow confused or frustrated with variations between breasts.
However, the decision to do so is ultimately yours and what is best for you and your baby. Many moms would much rather provide breast milk this way than give their babies artificial formula.
Making Your Final Decision
Before you decide between formula and the options presented above, think about the following factors:
- Baby’s health and well-being
- Your health and well-being
There are no right or wrong answers here. It’s a personal decision, and you alone have the right to choose what you feed your baby. Keep these four factors in mind, and then make an informed decision on what will best nourish your baby while keeping your family emotionally, physically and financially healthy. Even if you decide to try one of these alternatives to formula, you can always go back to formula if it the new options don’t work out for your family.
- What is a Wet Nurse and Common Questions About Wet Nursing
- Exclusive Pumping: Why How and Tips for Success
- Supplementing with Formula – What Breastfeeding Moms Should Know