When my wife and I put a bottle of baby formula to our son’s lips for the first time, it felt like a great defeat.
My wife had been struggling day and night to get her breast milk flowing. While we supplemented with formula in the first few days, we hoped it would be a rare occurrence. We turned our house into a milk-making laboratory and invited in consultants who showed us how to encourage our son’s sucking with a strange contraption that involved tubes and a syringe.
When my wife wasn’t trying to feed the baby, she was hooked up to a pumping machine. We were all miserable, and at a certain point it became clear that the breast milk would not be enough.
But would switching to artificial milk consign our son to years of earaches and, eventually, diabetes and asthma? What about all those health benefits we’d been hearing about for years in the arguments about why “breast is best”?
Our turn to formula, though, ended up being one of those unanticipated twists of parenthood that I look back on with the most gratitude.
Those blue plastic boxes of white powder, which at first seemed like a sinful corporate invasion of our sacred family space, introduced an equality and a peace in our home that seemed impossible in those first hellish weeks.
Even more unexpectedly, it gave my relationship to my son a depth that I, as a father, would have otherwise missed out on, and that has continued long after he stopped drinking from a bottle.
I can still remember the calm that came over him when I finally gave him that first bottle and he began sucking, and then kept going. He lay there, nestled in my forearm, and let me gaze at him. For a baby who had been constantly hungry and fussy, this moment was a wonderful gift.
At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much harm we were doing. So my wife and I dug into the facts on breastfeeding. I was shocked by how little scientific consensus there was to support my assumption that breast milk was some sort of miracle health tonic.
This gave me a sense of agency and confidence as a parent that I became particularly aware of when friends, who were fathers of breast-fed children, looked nervously to their wives when their children cried
When a team of scientists reviewed the hundreds of studies that have been done on breastfeeding, they found some evidence suggesting that breast-fed babies were slightly more resistant to ear infections, stomach flu and a few other illnesses during their first year.
For the longer term, researchers have found a correlation between formula and an increased incidence of diabetes and obesity, but many argue that the connection is almost impossible to tease apart from the broader socioeconomic environment a baby is raised in.
Whatever the scientific reality the research put my anxieties to rest enough that I could start to appreciate what the formula was doing for my relationship with my son.
As the weeks went by, I noticed a subtler but deeper change in my relationship to my son.
Now when my son cried in the night, or out in public, I instinctively started toward him. Before this, my wife had been the first responder because we assumed that he probably needed to be fed. Now, I was just as capable of feeding him as she was.
This meant that I not only fed him, but learnt about all the times when he wasn’t actually hungry but needed a burp or a clean diaper, or something else that we couldn’t figure out, but that was part of the essential mystery of parenting. I came to understand his rhythms and needs.
This gave me a sense of agency and confidence as a parent that I became particularly aware of when friends, who were fathers of breast-fed children, looked nervously to their wives when their children cried.
I noticed how the inability to supply milk gave many men a sense that they were also less capable of doing other parenting tasks that have nothing to do with milk. I don’t want to make it sound as though being available for every feeding was all sunshine and cherries. I suddenly had to wake up a lot in the middle of the night.
The baby formula, though, meant that my son was no longer so hungry, and so he was sleeping for longer stretches, making fewer night calls. And as my wife began getting more sleep, and reclaimed her body from all the contraptions that had been trying to extract milk from it, the level of resentment in my house, going in all directions, declined noticeably.
As for my son’s health, he made it through that first year without any earaches or bouts of stomach flu. Meanwhile, I noticed how, even after the bottle was gone, he looked to me for help and assistance just as much as I had learnt to look after him when he was unhappy.
When our second son arrived, my wife tried to see if the milk would flow any more readily. But part of me was hoping for the experiment to fail, which it eventually did. I didn’t want to miss out on all those endless hours of providing my baby with exactly what he needed.
Nathaniel Popper is a columnist specialising in finance and technology.