How to Spot a Defensive Formula Feeder


In recent years there has been a welcome cultural shift in the way our society (the scientific and medical communities at least) views breastfeeding. Research has re-established breastfeeding as the normative ideal for infant feeding, partly-facilitated by a boom in breastfeeding activism.

However this growing pro-baby culture has produced a particular breed of formula feeder – the ‘Defensive Formula Feeder’ (or ‘DFF’ for short). In this article I am going to outline the central characteristics of defensive formula feeders and how you can distinguish them from all other formula feeders.

Victim Mentality

DFFs are plagued with a victim mentality. They claim (and may even believe) that they had no control over the way that events unfolded leading to their breastfeeding failure. They use words like, “I had to use formula” and “I had no choice”. They spend their time looking outside of themselves to explain what happened or didn’t happen.

DFFs see any discussion of breastfeeding as an opportunity to recite their ever-lengthening list of reasons why they ‘couldn’t breastfeed’. How many times have you witnessed a perfectly civil breastfeeding conversation sabotaged by a formula feeder with the immortal words, “but not everyone can breastfeed”.

The internet is a dangerous place for DFFs. They have always to be prepared for the worst, as it is full of people who are out to hurt them. In their view, it is a harsh environment of victims, victimizers, and occasional rescuers.

The internet is also a place for DFFs to infect and assimilate. Like attracts like, so it only makes sense that defensive formula feeders attract people like them. When you’re in a social situation and everyone is complaining about why they ‘had’ to give up breastfeeding, it’s easy for even the most positive formula feeder to fall into the trap of victimhood.

Opaque Aggression

DFFs are passive-aggressive in their interactions with breastfeeders. The passive-aggressive style is often a very subtle and non-direct way of expressing anger without openly acknowledging it. DFFs seem superficially receptive to other’s suggestions, but are experts in passive resistance. For example, they may claim to have tried pumping their breast milk, but the reality is that they only tried for a day before giving up. During discussions, they can exaggerate how long they ‘tried’ for.

In the online environment, within minutes their behaviour will escalate. They will ascribe non-existent negative intentions to neutral statements, sulk, pout, withdraw, bungle, make excuses, and lie. Their talent at sending mixed messages catches others off-guard. One minute they’re having a civil conversation, then they’re offended, then they claim to enjoy the debate, then they are angry. Their behaviour appears very schizophrenic as they battle with their inner demons on the public stage of the internet forum or Facebook page. A common theatrical performance of a DFF is to post on a breastfeeding forum:

“I’m leaving this terrible place; you are all stuck up and shallow”

…rather than simply leaving. With these people, you can never truly know how your words will be received, which creates an egg-shells atmosphere, choking any dialogue.

This behaviour has a self-defeating, almost masochistic quality. It is as if DFFs welcome the process of getting hurt and are attracted to media which triggers them. They actively seek out breastfeeding forums, blogs and advocates. If they mistakenly stumble upon such a group, they do not leave. Instead they enjoy the masochistic buzz of being offended and arguing.

To compound the negativity of this outlook, DFFs know how to inflame others. They have a knack for dragging others into the emotional maelstrom they create, keeping them off-balance with their talent for shape-shifting. One moment they present themselves dramatically as victims; the next they are morphing into victimizers, hurting people with personal attacks and often reverting to Godwin’s Law. As the internet is perceived as a dangerous place (particularly breastfeeding forums), DFFs strike out in a surreptitious way in order to defend themselves against the inevitable aggression of others.

They are also masters of manipulation, which can make interactions with them infuriating. It is almost as if they want people to exacerbate their guilt, only to prove subsequently, that they are being persecuted. Their talent for high drama draws people to them like moths to a flame.  They gain short-term pleasure from feeling sorry for themselves or eliciting pity from others. Their permanent hurt feelings bring out altruistic motives in others. Which leads us to…

The White Knight 
(more of a hindrance than a help) 

Where there’s a DFF, a White Knight is not far away. I’m sure you’ve witnessed this co-dependent romance yourself. A formula feeder cries offence and upset, and along comes a knight (usually claiming to be a breastfeeder, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ve formula fed at some point) to defend their honour.

Another person’s suffering evokes strong natural responses of wanting to ease their suffering, to reassure, to defend. By defending, the White Knight satisfies their own desire for attention, drama and self-importance.

When online, DFFs are likely to exaggerate or dramatize their breastfeeding misfortunes, to make the need for rescue even more compelling. Unfortunately, satisfying this need does not bring a ‘cure’. Others’ sympathy is precisely the reason for remaining stuck in this defensive victim mentality. This is why so-called supportive environments don’t always work. When we’re told it’s okay to fail, and even have our emotional wounds licked by others, our failure is rewarded. Attention, sympathy and reassurance are prizes dealt to those who wallow in victimhood.  Furthermore, the importance of the goal (successful breastfeeding) is diminished: “don’t feel bad, as long as your baby is fed somehow, that’s all that matters”. This sends the message to anyone reading that breastfeeding difficulties are not worth persevering through.

“Stop Making Me Feel Guilty” – The Sense of Entitlement 

Part and parcel of being a DFF is a sense of entitlement. The formula feeder expects that all discussions on breastfeeding be out of bounds least they ‘hurt someone’s feelings’ (read: their feelings) or make someone ‘feel guilty’. This is particularly so when discussing the benefits of breastfeeding. These people also expect science to cease ‘wasting money’ on researching the fortitudes of breastfeeding. Instead the formula feeder will claim, “there’s much more important things to research, like war and poverty”. They believe that politicians, medical science, the media, and other mothers need to cease talking about breastfeeding’s natural superiority because it makes formula feeders feel bad. However in reality, nobody – no matter how hard they try – can ever make someone else feel something that they don’t want to feel. You are the only one able to choose your feelings. Debate and progression should not cease because some people are offended by it.

Denouncing Breastfeeding Studies

Another strategy adopted by DFFs (normally those with more militant leanings) is to denounce breastfeeding studies. No matter how large scale the research or how reputable the research team, they will fabricate fault with it.

So for example, they will argue that the benefits of breastfeeding are exaggerated or non-existent, and therefore by formula feeding they have not put their child at any disadvantage. It is a form of denial, a face-saving technique. As social psychology puts it, “if the injury from the act is not as significant as first believed, the damage to the image of the accused should be limited as well” (Benoit. W). Click here to see a good example of denouncing in action.

Denouncing breastfeeding studies helps to justify the DFF’s use of formula, masking it as an ‘equal alternative’. Unlike excuse-making (covered here) in which the DFF admits that formula is sub-standard, but does not accept full responsibility for giving it; denouncers accept responsibility for giving formula but reject the claim that formula is sub-standard. A typical line might be, “I can’t see the difference between formula and breast milk, and I chose formula”. Some of these mothers are in denial, some do it to troll breastfeeding mothers, and some genuinely believe the two milks to be equivalent. This latter group suffer from the least guilt. They brush aside or reject factual statements, often contemptuously. “My child is 100% healthy so formula can’t carry health risks”.

(For more insight into how DFFs use denouncing, a good read is “The Art of Denouncing Breastfeeding”).

Whatever strategy the DFF chooses to apply, each technique has one thing in common – insulting the intelligence of the listener. Playing the victim, excuse-making, manipulation, and denouncing, are all attempts to reshape another’s beliefs. It’s up to you whether you are taken in by it. I wrote about the array of DFF manipulation strategies in my book ‘Breast Intentions’; in fact, I devoted an entire chapter to them, aptly titled ‘Defensiveness’.

Next time you encounter a DFF, have a mental image of this bingo board, and see how many phrases you can spot. The board is particularly fun to use on internet forums, which are often populated by DFFs. Just use Microsoft Paint to circle the phrases as they come up in discussion. Popcorn optional.