No other animal mammary glands cause that much controversy. Somehow in the last 100 years we have separated into two camps: breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. Both sides are equally passionate and equally ferocious in defending their point of view. Like a lioness defending her cub, the women launch into battle head on. It is not just some abstract nutritional debate any longer. This time it’s personal.
So why the polarity? They call it having a choice. Choices make us feel empowered. Your Ob/Gyn asks you: “How are you planning to feed your baby? Breast or bottle?”. Your friends come for a visit: “Are you breastfeeding or bottle feeding?”. The public media echoes: breast is best, but you have a choice. Helpful baby websites list the benefits and disadvantages of both options, optimistically concluding: whatever you choose, your love will carry the bub through.
Choice implies two equal alternatives. Do I use cloth nappies or buy disposables? Will I cuddle my baby off to sleep or leave her in her cot?
Regarding feeding though, to me the so-called choice sounds more like: would you prefer to have your own kidney or go on dialysis?
But somehow baby feeding has become a matter of female liberation, akin to contraception or wearing (or not wearing) a bra. Women should NEVER be made to feel guilty for having to bottle-feed. But in an effort to soften the blow, have we made what the World Health Organisation considers the last resort socially acceptable as an equal alternative?
We skirt around this issue on our tippy toes lest we unintentionally offend anyone. If a smoker comes to my practice I will tell them of the dangers of smoking. If they have never smoked in their entire life and were unlucky enough to get adenocarcinoma of the lung I doubt that my anti-smoking stance will offend them. If you were desperate to breastfeed and things didn’t work out, why would you get upset at breastfeeding promotion?
I used to be deeply insulted by the pushy cries of midwives. How dare they make me feel inferior as mother just because I chose to bottle feed? Like many women in my shoes I thought I had made a rational decision carefully weighing the options available and my daughter turned out all right, thank you very much. Just like several years ago I had made a rational decision to start eating “heart-healthy” cardboard (oops, cereal). Ahem, I have since had to admit that I was following the crowd in my best sheep-like fashion.
I could post numerous studies showing the benefits of breastfeeding over artificial feeding (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?). While researching for this post I have accumulated a small library of scientific literature. They will stay in my BF folder for now. Instead I encourage you to go back to the Framework of Common Sense and try to fit bottle-feeding through the first 2 steps. Any food with vegetable oils (including soybean oil) added to the mix doesn’t get past Step 1 in my book.
I know, I know. We have all seen the BF zealots who can make the life of a new mum miserable by the repetitive chants of “breast is best” or “it’s my way or the highway” (hello to the two unnamed midwives of a certain Sydney maternity ward). You wonder if they have received their health promotion education in Stalinist Russia. There is a hint: less shouting and chest-beating, more actual information and non-judgmental advice, less personal attacks, more at-home support. It also doesn’t look too good when your government solemnly swears to make workplaces BF-friendly and then kicks one of its own politicians out of a Parliament session when she tries to breastfeed her 11 day old baby because the baby in question is not an “elected member of Parliament”. Bit awkward.
There are many reasons why women may be unable to breastfeed. Should women feel like they have failed as a mother if they couldn’t breastfeed? Absolutely no. But should we stop promoting breastfeeding and pointing out the deficiencies and dangers of artificial milk?
Artificially fed babies are at greater risk of:
How do you feel when you see this list? Do you feel horrified when you imagine a baby, any baby, being diagnosed with one of these conditions? Do your eyes glaze over the words because you have heard it all before? Do you feel angry because even though you have heard a 100 times that “breast is best” nobody ever told you that the other choice is not an equal alternative?
More than 83% of Australian mothers on discharge from the hospital breastfeed: one of the highest rates of breastfeeding initiation in the developed world (In the US the BF initiation rate is 79%, in GB – 76%, WHO Data). By 3 months this number drops to 61%, by 6 months – 49%. Why such a huge drop off? Obviously the desire to breastfeed is there. Are there any external factors which may influence this trend?
Up to a few years ago every Australian mother was given formula sample packs on leaving the hospital (oooh, freebies!). Even though formula companies are not legally allowed to advertise infant formula, they have found other ways to circumvent that rule. Since there are no restrictions on advertising a supplemental milk product, these companies are free to promote follow-on formulas, cautiously implying that the baby was on a starter formula prior to that.
Picking up a random Aussie monthly baby magazine proved highly illuminating. The 3rd page contained a full page ad for baby-feeding equipment like a bottle sterilizer, bottle holders, bottle warmers, some bottles… and a token breast pump. Page 15 was devoted to a A4 size advertisement of a special teat (that’s a nipple to my American readers, yes, you heard right) which was designed to mimic breastfeeding. So you don’t have to feel bad about supplementing breastfeeds anymore. The article on breastfeeding was titled “The Big Hurdles”. Wow, that’s encouraging. Next we come to a 2 page spread enticingly called “The Formula Puzzle: Choosing what type of formula to give your baby can be mind-boggling!”. The emerging pattern is what’s mind-boggling. The following 2-page story is on “Bottles for beginners”. The highlight of the issue is this:
Most of the exposure is a lot more subtle. Have you ever thought why a Baby Born is only fed with a bottle? A toy which allows little girls to be a Mummy for the first time also sends out a message that it’s the bottle-feeding that’s normal. How many breastfeeding images have you seen in children’s picture books?
Question to my 9 year old daughter: “Does seeing a woman breastfeed her baby make you uncomfortable?” She mumbles: “Yes, a little”. Me: “What about when you see a mother pig feed her little babies?”. She giggles: “That’s so cute.”
A supermarket aisle dedicated to baby food looks like this. The dizzying variety of formula, from lactose free to soy, from anti-reflux to hypoallergenic, bizzarely makes plain old breast milk pale in comparison. If your breastfed baby was having reflux wouldn’t you have a shadow of doubt that she/he NEEDS the newest scientifically proven formulation that your breast are just not equipped to provide?
Let me make this very clear. I don’t have a problem with “greedy corporations”. Everybody has to make money. If you were looking for shares to buy, Nestle would probably be a good choice (disclaimer: this is in no way meant as actual financial advice. The author of this article is incapable of counting notes in her own wallet). I think if we all realise that these companies are out there honestly making a buck and marketing their product within legal parameters, we will all be better off.
What these companies are not qualified to do is to give nutritional advice to you and your baby. So please use the same skepticism as when a real estate agent tells you that the old shack is a charming period piece.
So what should make us more angry? People who fiercely advocate the most natural process in the animal kingdom or those who make us believe that artificial milk is just as good? If you want to fight like a lioness, are you fighting the right battle?
P.S. My next post will be on soy infant formula and lactose intolerance in babies. I can also address any other issues or questions.