If you’re breastfeeding, you might be wondering whether you ever need to give your baby a bottle. Maybe you don’t want to or maybe you would love a break. Here, we’ll discuss how, when, and why to give a bottle to breastfed babies.
When breastfeeding is going well, it can feel like giving a baby a bottle is a hassle. Expressing milk, storing it safely, and then putting it into a clean bottle for baby’s consumption are definitely more work than just putting baby to the breast. Or if breastfeeding is a challenge—as it is for most people—you might worry that you’ll undo any progress by feeding baby in another way. The truth is that there are advantages to giving your breastfed baby a bottle regularly.
First, you and your breasts can have a break. Granted, if you are giving your baby expressed milk, there is some work required ahead of time, but it’s sometimes great to not be completely responsible for feeding your baby. Which brings me to the second benefit, bottle feeding gives someone else a chance to feed your baby. Maybe baby’s dad can feed the baby a bottle while you get a longer stretch of sleep, or perhaps you have another caregiver who’d like to bond with your baby. Finally, it’s important to introduce a bottle to your baby when they are younger if you want them to take a bottle when they’re older. So if you’re planning to return to work, even if you don’t work full time, it will be much less stressful if baby is in the habit of taking a bottle sooner rather than later.
As you balance your breastmilk supply and baby’s learning and preferences, introducing a bottle is a good idea somewhere in between two and four weeks.
When should I introduce a bottle to my breastfed baby?
Because your body produces milk in a supply and demand way—that is, the more you nurse or pump, the more milk your body will make—it can be a bit of a delicate balance to make sure that your milk production is on track for what your baby needs. The most sensitive times for milk production are the first two weeks and the month after that. By the time your baby is six weeks old, your milk supply is usually well-established, so changes in pumping/feeding habits are less likely to have a huge impact.
But if you wait until six weeks, your baby may already have strong opinions about how they like to receive their milk and could refuse the bottle. If you have a baby that’s already older than six weeks—don’t panic. Some babies are offended by receiving milk in any format other than the breast, and some babies adjust just fine. Just skip to the next section for ideas about how to introduce bottles.
As you balance your breastmilk supply and baby’s learning and preferences, introducing a bottle is a good idea somewhere in between two and four weeks. By two weeks your milk supply has been a bit more established, so adding in a short pumping session or using a passive collection device like a silicone pump or nipple cups will have less of an impact. And your baby is still young enough that they’ll probably be more willing to give it a try.
How should I introduce bottles to my breastfed baby?
Start with a bottle that has a slow-flow nipple. Breastfed babies are used to working for their milk, and if it comes pouring into their mouth after the first suck they may reject the bottle. This is also important for younger babies, who take smaller drinks of milk at the breast, too. If you have an older baby who is refusing the bottle, you can try different nipples to see if that makes a difference in their preference.
When you get ready to have your baby try the bottle, it’s a good idea for someone other than the breastfeeding parent to do the actual feeding. If you’re right there with your milk, smelling like baby’s favorite dairy bar, they are less likely to take to the bottle. Let your co-parent or another loved one give it a try.
Finally, use paced bottle feeding. This is a type of feeding where baby is an active participant and because they are working hard for the milk—just like during a breastfeed—they’re less likely to develop a preference for the bottle. Basically, you start by supporting baby to be slightly upright and holding the bottle about even with the horizon (parallel to the ground) so that the nipple is not full of milk. As you bring the bottle toward baby, you tilt the nipple slightly down, so that a bit more milk flows in, but the nipple is still not completely full. As baby starts to suck, you might tip the nipple down a bit more so that their sucking is rewarded by more milk flowing. Take breaks often to bring the nipple up and take it out of baby’s mouth, so that they can keep working for the milk. Bottle feeds take longer this way, but this strategy both helps baby transition between breast and bottle more easily and allows baby to check in with how full they are more easily. If you want more information, there are great videos online about this technique.
Once you start giving baby bottles, make sure to keep it up, offering pumped milk or formula once a day or every other day. If you have a baby that refuses the bottle one day, try again tomorrow, perhaps with a different bottle, a different temperature milk, formula instead of breast milk, or with a different person offering the bottle. A certified lactation consultant can help you with a baby who is refusing the bottle.