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Breast milk vs. formula: Local moms sound off on the benefits, detriments of both

FARGO - Breastfeeding can be a wonderful bonding experience between a mother and child, and studies are constantly touting the health benefits for both mom and baby.

Yet it can also be a painful, frustrating experience that leaves a woman feeling exhausted and anchored, either to her baby or to her breast pump.

Feeding a baby formula gives mom more freedom and makes it easier to include dad in the feeding routine - especially late at night. But according to research, it's not the best option.

Women who have been through it say there are benefits and detriments to both nursing their babies and feeding them formula.

Becky Cvijanovich of West Fargo both breastfed and formula fed her son, who is now 22 months old, and she currently nurses her 9-month-old daughter.

She breastfed her son until he was 6 months old, when she had to switch to formula because she was pregnant.

She said nursing was harder for the first six months because of how often her babies needed to eat and because she had to constantly either be the one to feed them or pump ahead of time. But she found that nursing was easier than formula feeding for the last six months because the frequency of feedings slowed and she didn't have to clean bottles or buy formula.

Hope Ray of Moorhead has also experienced the ups and downs of both breastfeeding and formula feeding her babies. She fed her first child formula and nursed her second.

She wanted to breastfeed her son, but she had to return to work two weeks after he was born, and pumping wasn't working for her.

"I was feeling terrible that things weren't going well and at my six-week appointment my doctor said it's more important for my son to have a sane mother," Ray said. "She just kind of gave me permission and said it's not a failure if you don't breastfeed."

Ray had dealt with a breast infection and lived in a small town where there weren't many resources to help her continue nursing her child.

"I was stressing myself out so much that it wasn't doing either of us much good," Ray said.

By the time her daughter was born, Ray was able to stay home so she had an easier time breastfeeding and was able to keep it up for a year.

"We tend to think of it as this binary state where you either breastfeed or you don't," Ray said. "I have friends who breastfed as much as they could and they supplemented with formula. I felt like it was all or nothing."

She also has a friend who wasn't able to nurse her daughter, but she could pump the whole time and still feed her baby breast milk, Ray said.

"There are a lot of different ways to make it work," she said.

Nursing pains

Women who breastfeed their babies often find out it's a lot harder than they expected it to be, especially in the beginning.

While it's a natural bodily function, nursing a baby can be extremely painful at first, and it takes time, practice and patience to figure out.

Ray dealt with a lot of pain in the beginning.

"Sometimes we say it doesn't hurt because we don't want people to get discouraged, and certainly after a few weeks it did stop hurting," she said. "We do women a disservice by saying it shouldn't hurt."

Ray thought she was doing something wrong until she read somewhere that the "toe-curling pain" should stop after a few weeks.

"I felt so much better," she said. "If we're given better information and more reasonable expectations, it can be a better experience all around."

Jill Piela of Fargo has been exclusively breastfeeding her 4-month-old son and said while it was easier for her than for some of her friends, there have always been struggles.

At first, her baby had trouble latching, and it would take 10 minutes before he would even start eating, she said.

"There are frustrating times with that," she said. "You can give up so easily at that point."

There were also long, sleepless nights when she was up feeding him that she was ready to quit, but she set short goals for herself, first breastfeeding him during her three months of maternity leave and now making it to six months, and it has gotten easier, she said.

She pumps twice a day at work and also goes to her son's child care at lunch to feed him.

"I find it a blessing that I've been able to provide for him for the last four months," she said.

It can also be a challenge to breastfeed a baby in public.

Because her baby is such a slow eater, Piela tries to pump ahead of time so she can feed him a bottle of breast milk when he's hungry.

Ray found dressing rooms to be a clean, quiet, private place to breastfeed.

Heather Knutson of Mayville did a lot of nursing in her car before going into a store.

Under pressure

Women who feed their babies formula, either by choice or because they have no other option, often have to face a society full of questions and judgment.

"People who don't know me sometimes judge me," said Bryana Petry of Fargo. "It's a general stigma when people hear that you're not breastfeeding your kids."

Petry has twin 8-month-old boys. She was never able to produce breast milk, so her sons had to be fed formula.

"I tried pretty much everything I could," she said. "I had six lactation consultants. I tried medication to help me produce more milk. There was no medical reason why I shouldn't be able to produce milk."

Even though there was nothing she could do, it was still hard for Petry to deal with emotionally.

"Any time people would bring it up, I would lose it," she said. "I was a big, teary mess. I felt really guilty - how could I not feed my babies? I never expected to not be able to breastfeed."

Feeding her babies formula was also a struggle for Melissa Davidson of Fargo.

"I felt like a failure," she said. "I was also very sad that I would not be able to have that kind of bond with my babies that you hear mothers talk about."

She tried breastfeeding her twin girls for four weeks but she was riding an emotional roller coaster and getting very little sleep.

"I had to try and get them to breastfeed, then give them a bottle, which would take about 30 minutes a child, then pump for 20 minutes to keep my milk supply in, clean everything up and fall asleep only to wake up 45 minutes later to do it all over again," Davidson said.

Her breaking point was when she was running errands, nearly got into an accident and forgot half the things she had left the house to do.

"I was just a zombie," she said.

Her girls, who are now 8 months old, had some tummy troubles on the first formula they tried, but once they switched to Gerber Good Start Gentle, they haven't had any problems, Davidson said.

"My husband saw what a toll it was taking on me, and he was very supportive in helping me realize I wasn't a bad mother for making that decision," she said. "Looking back, I know I made the right choice."

Davidson said it bothers her how breastfeeding is pushed so heavily.

"I know it has great health benefits and if mothers can do it they should, but it's not for everyone," she said. "I have all the confidence my girls are going to end up just fine."

Breast milk benefits

As a registered dietitian, Knutson knows the benefits of breastfeeding and talks about them with the patients she sees with gestational diabetes.

She said breastfeeding has been shown to reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in children who are breastfed and in mothers who get gestational diabetes.

Knutson was able to nurse her son for 18 months.

"It was nice to have a set-aside relaxing time to spend with my child each day," she said.

But while the health benefits of breastfeeding are widely spread, Knutson was sometimes questioned about when she was going to be done.

"There's a stigma attached with breastfeeding when they get to be closer to a year," she said. "Having the educational background, I was confident in our decision."

Jennifer Bailey DeJong, 39, of West Fargo is a certified lactation educator and a nursing professor at Concordia College, where the nursing curriculum includes information on the importance of breastfeeding.

"If we can educate nursing students, they'll go out and change the world, hopefully by educating the units that might always want to be doing things the old-fashioned way," she said.

Bailey DeJong both breastfed and formula fed her first child and exclusively breastfed her second, third and fourth children.

"The more I read and the more I learn, the more I am an advocate for it," she said. "It makes such a difference in the health of the child and the mother's health as well."

Researchers and health care advocates urge moms to breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible, Bailey DeJong said. She said studies are showing that chronic diseases like heart disease, allergies and diabetes are diminished when children are breastfed.

"It's not just a choice. It really is superior to formula," she said. "We just want to be helpful. It's not that we're trying to judge or make people feel guilty, we just want everyone to have the information so they can make an informed decision."

Bailey DeJong said most moms quit breastfeeding because they don't think they have enough milk.

"Moms, especially in the United States, have this perception that their bodies aren't good enough," she said. "We need to tell moms their bodies are capable of doing this."

There are instances where moms cannot produce enough milk, but those are rare, she said.

Even if nursing didn't work the first time, Bailey DeJong said moms should still try with their next child because it might work the second time around.

The Great Mom Debate is an occasional series on parenting topics, addressing issues women often debate socially and within themselves. If you have an idea for our Great Mom Debate or if you would like to participate in future topics, please contact Forum reporter Tracy Frank at