Monday, 18 February 2013

The formula for life

Save the Children launched a report today on breastfeeding, Superfood for Babies, in their words calling the report "a global call to action to rediscover the importance of breastfeeding and to support mothers to breastfeed their babies – especially in the poorest communities in the poorest countries." Now I'm all for public health messages that ensure we're all well informed about the choices we make, but the report's recommendation that made the headlines in the UK, that there should be cigarette style health warnings on boxes of formula, made my blood boil.

Parents (that's right, parents, not just mothers, not that you'd believe it from reading the press around this that fathers are also involved in decisions about caring for their children), choose to formula feed their babies for many reasons, none of which are anyone else's business. And I just don't believe that any of those people do it because they don't want the best for their children.

What such a recommendation does is make parents feel guilty for decisions they have made when trying to do this best. That's why the breast is best slogan is wrong. Best in what way? Better than a mother so exhausted she has a breakdown? Better than infected cracked nipples? Better than slow decline into malnourishment? Better than being able to leave your baby and go out and earn a living? Sod it, who has the right to say it's even better than being able to wear an outfit with the confidence you won't leak all over it? We make decisions as individuals to suit our specific circumstances, and I just don't believe most people make decisions for anything other than the greater good of their family.

What's more, the recommendation is ridiculous. Once you have decided, or realised, that formula will be part, or whole, of your baby's diet, there is only a small window in which you can change your mind. Milk supply is difficult enough to establish in the first place, but almost impossible to re-establish. Do Save the Children really want people who stopped breastfeeding a week ago, a month ago, six months ago, to feel shit every time they give their child food?

I owe many people in the National Health Service a debt of gratitude for the care they have given me and my children. Midwives, surgeons, radiologists, fetal medicine experts, cleaners and so on. But one that sticks in my mind is the paediatrician who told me kindly when my daughter was (literally) slowly starving, that we don't actually have an obligation to breastfeed our children, but we do have an obligation to feed them. What did we do in the end? You can find the answer elsewhere on the blog. For the purposes of this post it's irrelevent. Not that you'd believe it from the headlines, or the parenting forums, but it's not us v them when it comes to breastfeeders and formula feeders. We're all parents, all muddling through, all trying our best, all hoping to keep our children safe. And fed.

Because that's the thing about formula - it feeds children safely. Contrary to popular belief, there were no halycon days in the past when all women contentedly breastfed their happy chubby babies. No, the past is littered with dead or malnourished children who may have survived had formula been on offer. Lack of milk, inability to breastfeed or circumstances that make breastfeeding difficult are not another kind of yuppy flu that only exist in modern times. They have always existed, but the outcomes were far worse than today. Cigarette style warnings Save the Children? Don't be ridiculous - bottlefeeding doesn't kill, it actually does the opposite. Sure, put large public health messages on boxes of formula, but make them accurate. 'Formula saves lives', that's what they should say.

Related post: The great unsaids - bottle feeding


  1. My daughter was born six weeks ago (a fairly traumatic experience.) And although I breastfeed her, as I did my other two children, I almost feel like I have to apologise for doing so, as if it somehow compromises my feminist credentials. I don't doubt that parents who formula feed love their children as much as those who don't - so why do some parents assume that my decision to breastfeed means I look down on them as parents?
    There is no escaping the evidence that 'breast is best' and I don't want to have to apologise for trying to do the best I can for my daughter, for risk of causing offence.
    The focus should be on supporting women who want to breastfeed to be able to do so.
    Yes, it hurts and is knackering and you can't just hand the baby over to someone else. But perseverance pays off. Of course, formula is not poison. I was never breastfed and am fine - however my relationship with my mum is not, and I wonder whether had she breastfed things may have been different? At the end of the day, formula manufacturers are there to make money not to promote the health of our children.

    1. Are you serious? My relationship with my mommy is no different than the relationship my sister has ( one was fed by breast , one not). Are you actually implying that adopted babies are less loved because they are not fed by breast? Poor you, having to defend your decision to breastfeed...what a crock. A feminist allows a woman to make choices, without judgment. So, yes, you have lost your credentials.

    2. honey, your lack of closeness to your mother had nothing to do with how you were fed as a child.
      And to answer your question- why do parents think you look down on them for formula feeding?

      Bc you stated it yourself, you think you are better for breast feeding your children.

      Have you ever thought that there are millions of women who just can't feed their children that way. I am one of them. My supply NEVER came in at all. And why should you and other breast feeding mothers get all the attention and focus, why can't there be an equal focus? It just seems ridiculous these days how everything is so one sided. If you breast feed you are in the wrong, if you formula feed you are in the wrong.
      Honestly when it comes to feeding a child there is no one way of doing it and as long as it is being done, then your breast is best slogan means shit!

  2. *Applause*

    One thing which is quite shocking is the pseudo-scientific blanket nature of the assault. Any medical leaflet in a maternity ward or clinic will refer to the risk of X disorder being reduced by breastfeeding. "Crossing the road while speaking on your mobile phone increases the risk of death (but this risk is significantly reduced by breast-feeding)". These messages prey on assumed ignorance and illogical mentality of the working class women they target. "Breast-feeding significantly increases your chance of winning the Lottery" can't be a million miles away. It's politically ugly.

    'We' have been breastfeeding, to the point where my daughter now more or less refuses the bottle. This means that any semblance of gender equality is impossible (in terms of a social life), which isn't exactly fun for a dad who wants to do a fair share (if only so as to then experience a more guilt-free night out!). I'm astonished there hasn't been more of any outcry from feminists about the whole thing.

  3. Save the Children recommend that larger warnings are put on all formula milk tins. This is one recommendation out of many, but sadly, the main one that the Western media seem to have picked up. The recommendation isn't in any way about making Western parents feel guilty about their infant feeding choices; it is because our formula often gets exported to developing countries where they really do need the information that breastmilk is safer for their babies.

    Whatever you feel about the risks/benefits of infant feeding choices in the Western world - and whatever you feel about three square inches of Times New Roman on a product you buy - actually doesn't matter for a second because this is about babies really dying in developing countries. I'd put up with warning labels over every food item I purchase (healthy or unhealthy) if it could save 83,000 fellow humans.

    1. It already says on formula tins that breastfeeding is the best way to feed your children. It's all over the information on the "swag bags" they no longer give out at the hospital, but which you can still get your hands on if your pediatrician knows you plan to formula feed. I have rheumatoid arthritis so if I want to be able to hold my daughter TO feed her I need to take medication that is contraindicated for breastfeeding, and I won't lie - it was more than a little annoying and insulting that the breastfeeding pamphlet included with the formula tins my pediatrician gave us was TWICE AS THICK as the pamphlet on how to properly prepare formula. As if I was too stupid to understand that breastfeeding is "better." Tell that to my diseased joints.

      The larger warnings are there not in an attempt to shame people who choose formula but "because the information isn't on the tins"? Please.

  4. Good. I'm glad they are considering doing this.

    All of the formula-feeding mothers I know chose to do so because of convenience. Maybe they think their convenience is "best" for their child, but at least if they have one more message aimed at them to tell them that formula is inferior to breastmilk, they can reconsider.