On Breastfeeding and Formula

Warning and disclaimer: This post discusses breastfeeding and formula.  It does not discuss mothers who use formula, mothers who need formula, babies who need formula, breastfeeding in public or any other variations.  If you feel it is putting you down, please read all of it carefully.  Please comment, but it needs to contribute to the discussion, not sidetrack it.  If I feel it is sidetracking, I won’t post it but will let you know.  Any comparisons to genocidal regimes will be ignored.

On breastfeeding:

There have been a few incidents recently to bring breastfeeding up again, especially feeding older children.  And girls, I have to say – we need to stop playing the formula companies’ game.

Formula is a very good nutritional substitute for breastfeeding.  I mean that sincerely – if I couldn’t breastfeed I would be thankful for formula, it is far, far better than the options that used to be available (without getting into wet nursing).  But it is only a nutritional substitute.  It cannot provide the immunological benefits, it cannot promote sleep for both mother and baby, it cannot calm a distressed child, it cannot act as a contraceptive, it cannot promote bonding through hormones, it cannot regulate the digestive system, it cannot help jaw muscle development for speech, it cannot do any of the myriad other things that breastfeeding does.  If I couldn’t breastfeed I would be thankful for formula, but I would need to parent completely differently to fill the other gaps.

So when someone starts to compare formula and breastfeeding, why on earth do we even mention nutrition?  Formula does it pretty well, let’s accept and admit that.  It doesn’t do it perfectly, it doesn’t do it the best.  It isn’t responsive, and we don’t even know all the things that are in breastmilk so we don’t know how close it is.  But it does a good job of helping human babies to grow and develop, especially when there is no better alternative.  So when we are trying to explain that breastmilk really is better, why do we fight on our weakest ground?

We do it because we are allowing the formula companies to control the debate.  It’s that simple.  They have a product that can compete nutritionally but not anywhere else, so they talk about nutrition.  And we let them do it.  The very term ‘breastfeeding’ lets them do it, because it implies that it’s all about feeding, which it isn’t.  Unfortunately my Mum’s a nurse, so I personally can’t use nursing, and I don’t know what else to use.  We need to find or invent some term that includes all the things breastfeeding does that have nothing to do with nutrition.

And it’s very hard to argue with someone who’s agreeing with you.  So when faced with all the reasons that formula isn’t that bad … nutritionally … smile and nod.  Agree.  “You’re right, it’s ok nutritionally.  So how do you …?”  or “It’s a pity you have to find another way to …” or even be blunt and say “Unfortunately, it can’t ever provide …”

And the World Health Organisation recommendations DO apply to us – most of us don’t feed ourselves or our older children properly, what makes people think we can feed our babies appropriately?  But even so, what does breastfeeding an older baby or toddler have to do with nutrition?  Why bother arguing nutrition, when Karleen Gribble’s study showed mothers don’t feed older babies for that reason anyway.  They feed for comfort, for bonding, for sleeping, because the children enjoy it.  These are the things we should be arguing, these are the things that formula can never, ever provide.

Now it may sound like I’m saying mothers who use formula don’t comfort their babies, or put them to sleep, or whatever.  I’m not, in fact believe it or not I’m admiring.  You see, you have to find other ways of doing the things that I can do easily through breastfeeding.  And I think that you should be getting the credit for that, not some multinational company.  Because that’s the other half of this post.

On formula:

We need to stop calling a spade a manual earth arranging implement.

I don’t mean debates about whether it’s ‘formula’ or ‘artificial baby milk.’ I mean it is a commercial product sold by companies that are trying to make a profit, and doing very well out of it.  They are continually studying and trying to improve it – because they have competitors who are trying to make money too.  And they are continually marketing, marketing, marketing, and cleverly focusing on the bits they do well.  Of course they are, we all do.  Focus on the positives and hope no-one notices the negatives.  But the really clever bit is that they have managed to co-opt their consumers into doing the marketing for them for free.

Let me show you what I mean.  Most of the readers of this blog are Australian, and grew up eating vegemite.  People in other countries eat marmite, or promite, or some other type of yeast spread.  They are all fairly similar nutritionally, all do the same job, have fairly minor taste variations.  Yet Australians will ship vegemite around the world and have stand-up fights trying to prove its superiority.  This is not because it genuinely is superior in any way, but because of its emotional status as an Australian icon.  It is unAustralian to not defend vegemite.  We eat it and defend it because in a symbolic way we are defending Australia and what it means to be Australian.

Formula is a commercial product.  It is produced purely to make a profit, not out of the goodness of anyone’s heart.  Yet it has come to represent, for many women, motherhood.  This is completely understandable.  There are so many emotions tied up with such a basic thing as feeding our babies.  On a primitive level I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves – if I can’t do this, then can I really be a mother at all?  So in defending formula, women are defending their own status as mothers.  And so they make wonderful unpaid advertisers.

It can be hilarious in a painful way to read some of the discussions about baby feeding.  The question was asked – what would happen if formula were $100 a tin?  And there were all sorts of answers about ‘the government.’ But what on earth has the government to do with the price of formula?  It’s set by the companies that make it, and you can bet they’re doing more than just covering costs.   In fact, they should be setting it as high as they possibly can before they lose customers – that’s how supply and demand works.  They’re not giving it to you cheaply because they’re worried about your baby.

And statements about breastfeeding mothers not drinking, or smoking, or taking medications, or having to eat perfectly!  You don’t need to be pure to breastfeed – have a look at what’s given to the cows!  And the factories certainly aren’t pure, they aren’t even sterile, which is why you have to use hot water to make it up.

I’m not trying to make mothers who use formula feel bad, I’m trying to tell you not to be conned.  Because all the formula is replacing is the nutrition.  You are still the one getting your baby to sleep, comforting them, helping their speech develop, taking care of them when they have a tummy ache.  In other words, you are the ones doing the mothering.  You don’t have to defend yourself, your defense is your happy, healthy, amazing children.  You don’t have to work as a marketer for formula companies.  Any other product in your pantry (especially one you are feeding your children) you wouldn’t defend to the bitter end.  As parents we question, we hold companies responsible for their claims, force them to make better products, and generally try to make them accountable (except Vegemite, that would be unAustralian).

A spade is a spade, and formula is a very expensive commercial nutritional substitute that makes a great profit for its makers and leaves you to do all the work.

On mothering:

So in the end, we’re all pretty similar.  We all need to do the same things for our children, and that includes so much more than nutrition.  So let’s give nutrition a rest for a bit, hey?  I’ll agree that formula does a reasonable job of it, if you’ll agree that breastfeeding does all sorts of other things as well.

psst –> weak

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13 responses to this post.

  1. *standing ovation*

    Reply

  2. Well said…. and after a MIL comment today that has shitted me to no end, well said *round of applause*

    Reply

  3. Posted by Becca on July 3, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Wow Deb, beautifully said!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Sarah on July 3, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    As a mother who had to formula feed both her children may I applaud you on a well thought out, amazingly written piece. I think all mothers should read this.
    I like to think I’m a pretty good mother, and what I fed my children for the first few years of their lives doesn’t define, or detract from, my mothering abilities.

    Awesome Job!!

    Reply

  5. Posted by Jac on July 3, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Good work- well said 🙂

    Reply

  6. Posted by maryhooke on July 3, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    wonderful article.. A great read that I will be passing on to ALL mothers.

    Reply

  7. […] This post was Twitted by AllFromMyKids […]

    Reply

  8. Posted by MummyTiff on July 4, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Brilliant Deb!

    There are a few people I can think of that I would like to read this right now – I might print it out and leave it laying around over the weekend……….that is if they can concentrate over the crying that surprise surprise formula is not helping to ease.

    Reply

  9. Posted by Julie on July 8, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Wow Deb, now that was a great read and makes so much sense to me.

    Reply

  10. Thanks for all the comments, I’ve been away and haven’t had a good connection! I’m really glad it came across well for women who’ve used formula, too.

    So come on – what are we going to call breastfeeding/sleeping/comforting?

    Reply

  11. I think one of the most important elements of the formula / breastfeeding situation is the lack of faith women have in their bodies. I can not recall ever hearing a justification for choosing formula that was not based on “I didn’t have enough milk” or “my milk ran out”. What makes women think a can does it better?

    Reply

  12. I just made the transition from breast to formula and no one imposed any guilt on me except myself. Interesting read.

    Reply

  13. Posted by Carrie on October 5, 2009 at 9:12 am

    You have such a way with words, Deb.

    Reply

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