10 things I wish I'd known about bottle-feeding a breastfed baby

by Katie Virk

Please note this blog focuses on one mum's individual experience of bottle-feeding her baby. If you are struggling with breastfeeding or bottle-feeding a breastfed baby, please reach out to organisations such as The Breastfeeding Network https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/ Helpline: 0300 100 0212.

Sometimes I feel breastfeeding was a little mis-sold to me. I assumed I could just breastfeed when I fancied, pump when I felt like it, and that my baby would happily guzzle from bottle or breast because that’s what babies do… right? Well my little one didn’t get the memo. By three months of age he wanted nothing to do with that lovely bottle of liquid gold I’d pumped for him. Only direct from the boob was good enough for my picky little prince.

I’d read all the standard advice people suggest to get your breastfed baby to take a bottle:

  • Someone other than the breastfeeding parent offer the bottle
  • Warm the teat
  • Dip the teat in breast milk
  • Various brands of bottle that claim to be ‘just like the breast’
  • Wait till they’re hungry / don’t let them get too hungry
  • Switch to the bottle mid-feed
  • Dream feed just before their usual first wake up

Well none of that worked for me. I felt quite trapped being his only source of food and water, unable to leave him for more than an hour or two at a time. Here’s what I wish I’d known to avoid getting into that pickle.

1. Smaller, narrower teats

Every single brand of bottle / teat claims that theirs is most similar to the breast. But not all are. The very wide flat type of teats (e.g. Tommee Tippee Closer to Nature, Phillips Avent Natural) are ironically the worst for breastfed babies. Sure our boobs / nipples may look quite big and flat, so these big wide bottles seem to make sense. But if you think about when your boob is in baby’s mouth it gets squished into a narrower pointy shape – the shape of baby’s mouth in fact. So teat wise something that is smaller / narrower / pointier is actually easier for breastfed babies (e.g. Nuk, Minbie, Mam, Lansinoh). See our post Baby items I'm still using 6 years on to find out how to reuse your baby bottles. 

2. Don't miss your chance!

There’s loads of advice about not starting too early by introducing a bottle before baby is 4­–6 weeks old. But no one told me you can also be too late! After about two months of age you might find it’s a lot tougher for baby to switch to the bottle.

3. Regularity is key

Once you’ve introduced a bottle somewhere between 4–8 weeks of age you need to keep giving a bottle regularly (2–3 times a week at least). If you leave a big gap before offering again lots of babies seem to forget they ever took a bottle and want nothing to do with it anymore.

Bottle feeding a breastfed baby

4. Be patient

Your baby might not take the bottle every time you offer at first. But keep going. One or two refusals doesn’t mean they’re never ever going to drink from a bottle again. Don’t give up! Keep offering the bottle several times a week. It may take several weeks or even months of offering regularly for them to get used to the bottle. There’s probably not going to be a sudden ‘aha!’ moment when they slurp the whole lot in one go, rather a gradual build up over weeks.

5. Small quantities are ok

My friend’s babies who were formula fed used to chug down 6 or 8oz of milk in about 2 minutes flat. So I assumed this was what my breastfed baby would also do once I got him on a bottle. Alas no, he would only take 1oz at a time. This was not as far as I was concerned ‘taking a bottle’. I wanted him to chow down 8oz and sleep all night!

Exclusively breastfed babies are taking on average around 24oz of milk per 24 hours from the breast. So roughly 1oz per hour. My guy was a snacker and liked to feed from me every 1–2 hours throughout the day (and night). So he was used to only feeding 1–2oz at a time. Why would he suddenly guzzle three times the quantity just because it was coming from a bottle?

For breastfed babies, drinking 1–2oz from a bottle every 1–2 hours is normal. If you want them to chug larger amounts you’ll have to build up to it slowly over weeks or months.

6. Formula fixes

If you want to give formula as well / instead of pumped milk then consider trying the readymade versions rather than the powdered stuff. Anecdotally they taste sweeter and smoother than the powder and might be more palatable. Plus you can buy smaller quantities and try out a few different brands to see what suits.

7. Soapy taste?

If you can bring yourself to do it, dip a clean finger in your bottle of expressed milk and check it tastes ok. Some women naturally have ‘excessive lipase’ in their milk. This is an enzyme which breaks down the fats in the milk and makes it taste soapy or metallic. It’s not harmful to baby to drink this but they’ll probably refuse because it tastes different from what they’re used to.

I’d never heard of this problem and I think a lot of the time I was offering yucky tasting milk to my little one and feeling increasingly frustrated that he kept refusing the bottle. I assumed the bottle was the problem and kept trying different brands and teats when actually it was the milk that was the issue all along.

Unfortunately if you think this is your issue your only options are to heat the milk to denature the enzyme (more faff) or give formula (which you might not want to). It’s not an easy one to solve.

Pumped breast milk

8. Think about sterilisation

Official advice is that breast pumps and bottles should be sterilised before each use until baby is 12 months of age. The NHS website has information on the safe preparation of formula and pumped breastmilk.

However, some argue that breastmilk has natural antibacterial properties and might not need the same levels of sterilisation as formula – this is not something that has been tested in scientific studies so it’s up to you to make your own decision on whether to sterilise every time you pump or not. I would certainly sterilise if I was pumping to store milk in the fridge or freezer and/or my baby was under six months of age.

Over six months of age if I was just expressing a couple of ounces to feed straight away to keep him in the swing of taking a bottle then I wouldn’t bother sterilising.

Sometimes I would start the steriliser, then my baby would cry so I’d spend half an hour settling him, changing him etc, after which I wasn’t sure if the bottles were still sterile. Was I meant to use them immediately as the steriliser finished? Well, if you have a steam or microwave steriliser then the bottles stay ‘sterile’ for 24 hours if you leave them in there untouched, so you don’t need to run it more than once a day. If only I’d known!

9. Use distraction

Don’t try to mimic a breastfeed, your baby will not be fooled. Go for something completely different, sit them up, facing out, put the TV on, or read them a story. Try offering the bottle whilst walking in the pushchair or in the carrier. Make the bottle a pleasant, but different experience to breastfeeding.

10. Consider a cup

The NHS recommends phasing out baby bottles completely after 12 months of age. If your baby is nine months plus it might not be worth the hassle of trying for weeks to get them to take a bottle only to have to stop a month or two later. You might be pleasantly surprised that they can just drink milk (or water) from a sippy or straw cup instead.

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