Teen Moms and Breastfeeding Their Newborn

Breastfeeding And Teenage Mothers
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(For the purposes of this article, "bottle feeding" does not include expressed breast milk.)

When a teenager is pregnant and deciding whether to bottle feed or breastfeed her baby, there are many factors that influence that decision. She may already have some misconceptions about breastfeeding and they may be difficult to break. For example, many teens who only consider bottle feeding see it as healthier (because you can read the ingredients on the label) and more convenient (because you don't have to be "joined-at-the-hip" with the baby). Others believe that their breasts will sag and that breastfeeding is "old-school." Teen moms, just like adults, take many factors into consideration when choosing how they will feed their baby. Advantages and disadvantages are weighed heavily in that decision.

Feelings about infant feeding methods start to form well before pregnancy. However, many pregnant teens do not actually make the decision to breastfeed or bottle feed until late in their pregnancy, or sometimes until after they deliver their baby. 

Which Teens Are More Likely to Breastfeed?

There are some observed trends in groups of women who choose to breastfeed, too. Generally speaking, a woman is more likely to breastfeed if she:

  • Is White or Hispanic, as compared to African American
  • Is of older maternal age
  • Is married
  • Is not living in the same home as her own mother
  • Was breastfed herself
  • Has known or spent time with breastfeeding women; has the opportunity to have breastfeeding or infant-feeding education (classes, books)

Choosing Bottle Feeding Over Breastfeeding

We can break the statistics about teens that decide to bottle feed into two distinct groups:

  • Teens who choose to bottle feed after considering breastfeeding: These teens are usually economically disadvantaged. They also put off their feeding decision until late in their pregnancy, or sometimes until after delivery. Surprisingly, they are typically encouraged to breastfeed by at least two significant others and actually have friends who breastfed. Unfortunately, the majority who do make this decision have little family support.
  • Teens who never entertain the idea of breastfeeding: These teens usually make this decision alone. They usually have less than two role models in their life who breastfed, and less than two significant others who enlightened them about breastfeeding.

Of course, there are teens with at least two support people who encourage bottle feeding who do indeed choose to bottle feed after having considered both options.

Reasons Teen Mothers Choose Bottle Feeding

The most common reason given by teens who decide to bottle feed is that breastfeeding would cause the return to school or work to be much more difficult. They also envision physical pain, worry about their diet (many teens may feel nervous that they or their baby will get fat), and they don't like the substance-use constraints related to breastfeeding. Additionally, most teens worry that they won't be able to learn how to breastfeed, or that they won't be able to produce enough breast milk for their baby.

Quite often, bottle feeding is actually the preferred feeding choice of the teen's mother or grandmother, significant other, and/or doctor.

The Importance Of Educating Teen Mothers About Their Feeding Options

It is important that we take particular factors into consideration when trying to educate a teen mom. Before bombarding her with information, we have to look at her:

  • Financial situation
  • Family support structure
  • The timing of the decision
  • Previous experience with breastfeeding
  • Role models who breastfeed
  • Encouragement from significant others on feeding methods
  • Reasons for her interest in breastfeeding

After factoring in this information, we can tailor her "feeding education" to what will be most realistic for her and her lifestyle.

Those concerned about making sure a teen has adequate information about both feeding methods should involve people who are important to her, such as her doctor, who can clear up any misunderstanding that she might have.

It's important that anyone looking to further educate a teen mother about her feeding options understand that she may have conflicted feelings about her pregnancy. A wonderful support system to help the pregnant teen through these decisions is WIC. The WIC program has had fantastic success working with teens that are thinking about breastfeeding and really act to break the barriers to breastfeeding.

Edited by Donna Murray

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  • Joffe A, Radius S. Breast versus bottle: Correlates of adolescent mothers’ infant feeding practices. Pediatrics 1987;79(5):689- 695.
  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

By Melissa Kotlen
Melissa Kotlen is an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and Registered Lactation Consultant.