formula feeding


In an era when many feminists are (in my opinion rightly) dismayed by the suggestion that a woman’s right to an abortion should be subject to conditions, I have been shocked by the high level of acceptance when it comes to the notion that women who formula feed should be forced to justify their choice … I have witnessed a sizeable number of women, some of whom are self-declared feminists, debating on one another’s social media profiles and calling for formula to be made illegal.

The quote is from a piece by Lorrie Hearts, at the f word., which I found on Jessica Valenti’s blog from a link at The Feminist Breeder

This argument entirely misses the point, and it’s completely wrong to equate this issue with assaults on reproductive liberty. 

Here is why:

First of all, the post is about a hospital that has decided to stop giving free formula samples to new mothers.  Formula is still available.  Unlike the abortion analogy, here, no one is taking away anyone’s right to choose anything.  The only thing going away is FREE samples.  

This is totally unlike a legislative or judicial attack on women’s reproductive liberty.  When governments make it impossible for a woman to make decisions about her body, it is ILLEGAL for a woman to choose not to become a mother.  When a hospital stops providing free formula, it is LEGAL for a woman to choose to give formula, you just have to pay for it like you pay for everything else.  In fact, women now have more choices, because they can choose any brand they’d like to buy, and not be stuck with whatever the hospital got in free samples that week.  And when “a sizeable number of women” criticize your motherhood choices in a way that makes you feel lousy, it is of course still LEGAL to do what you’d like to do, and I suggest seeking friends who aren’t critical of you, and remembering that other people’s opinions are only that, and that ranting about infant feeding choices on Facebook is a far cry from taking your rights away.

Moreover, I so don’t get why formula feeding moms support the free-formula-giveaways.  The formula industry spends mega-dollars on all that freebie placement and marketing.  Where do you think that marketing budget comes from?  How do they make back what they spend giving away free samples everywhere?  They make it back by jacking up the price of formula.  Moms who buy formula pay for everyone’s freebies.  If less was spent on all the give-aways, moms who were buying it would pay less.

I hate when the language and ideals of feminism are perverted this way.  The formula industry is not “feminist.”  It does not exist to advance the cause and plight of women.  It exists to get your dollars.  They do not give away the free samples because they care about you and your sore nipples, they do it because they hope you’ll use their product and spend your money on them.  Period.  

Hospitals can do way more than they currently do to improve the care of new moms.  I have blogged about this before; we need systemic change that recognizes that new mothers need individualized, evidence-based, compassionate care.  But this particular thing is not an example of it.

"Breast Is Normal"

Here’s a really interesting recent piece by Ceridwen Morris on the “Breast Is Best” slogan.  We’ve all heard “Breast is Best” for years, but, come to think of it, doesn’t it sound a little too “goody goody” to you?  Do you really need to be “best” at everything?  Some breastfeeding folks point out that calling breastfeeding “best” makes it seem like an extra special A+ you might not feel you need to go for, instead of what it is:  the normal way our species feed our young.  You give birth and your breasts get milk.  Whether you use them or not, we are mammals.  

But once we describe breastfeeding as plain old “normal,” what does that make formula?  When we call breastfeeding “beneficial,” formula feeding sounds “normal”.  If breast is normal, formula is:  worse.  Inferior.  Not as good.

I know this is a touchy subject, but before you click “unfollow,” let me finish.

Here's another article I saw today, noting that 96% of US hospitals fail to support, or undermine breastfeeding. 96%!!  No, hospitals don't say “Don't Breastfeed!”; they undermine it with inconsistent and misinformed practices, and by not implementing WHO's 10 step plan to become “Baby Friendly.”

It matters. Moms trust hospital caregivers and assume the hospital staff gives appropriate, state-of-the-art feeding advice.  But when moms are discharged without establishing breastfeeding, or having been given inconsistent or misinformation, many go on to wean, saying they “couldn’t” breastfeed / didn’t make enough milk /  etc.  Often they don’t realize the whole endeavor was sabotaged in the first days after the birth, by misguidance, inconsistent advice and inappropriate practices in the hospital.    

Then, moms who’ve weaned feel criticized by pro-breastfeeding advocacy that describes breastfeeding as “normal” or formula as “inferior.”  And we all dance around, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings.  

Here’s the thing.  We shouldn’t hurt Moms’ feelings.  There is no use making any new mom feel like crap about herself, or suggesting that breastfeeding is the be-all-end-all, or that there is no place in the world for formula, or that it’s evil.  There’s a place for formula.

We need to support mothers’ choices, and respect their individual situations.  We don’t support them when we get sidetracked on a “did she or didn’t she” discussion of infant feeding, or act like mothers who formula feed are weak of character or inadequate.  But we also don’t support them when we pretend breastfeeding isn’t the normal way human young are meant to be fed, species-wide. 

Instead of Mom On Mom Criticism, here is where to focus our energies instead:  We MUST change what happens in the hospital. Hospitals’ newborn protocols are a crucial element of breastfeeding outcomes and all but 4% are failing.  Why are almost no hospitals “Baby Friendly”?  The answer has to do with money and time.  To be “Baby Friendly,” a hospital cannot accept free formula samples.  It must develop a comprehensive breastfeeding policy.  It must provide staff training.  It costs.  And if formula is “normal” and breastfeeding  ”extra-specially beneficial” then, that cost seems too much to bear.  Especially since  most exhausted and overwhelmed mothers will blame themselves if breastfeeding doesn’t work, and most won’t turn back to the hospital, saying, “How could you have failed me in those early days when my baby and I were fragile and needed your help, support and information?”

Why are any of us giving our business to hospitals that fail us in *any* area of care?   Write to your hospital and request that they become “Baby Friendly.”  If you are pregnant, take a prenatal breastfeeding class with your partner.  If you’re in NY use this website to look at breastfeeding outcomes in your hospital (scroll down to find the percentage of babies who are “fed exclusively breastmilk” as the AAP recommends).  If the breastfeeding rates are low, bring contact info for an IBCLCwith you to the hospital when you go into labor.  You may well not need her, but if few babies leave your hospital exclusively breastfeeding, why would you trust what the maternity nurses tell you about breastfeeding?  Consult with an expert when you have questions.

Breastfeeding is not simply a matter of what fate has in store for you.  You, your partner, and your support people are factors in the outcome.  Get educated; ask for help; reach out when necessary.  Reach out to the right folks.

P.S. For those in NYC:  Only two hospitals are “Baby Friendly”:  Harlem Hospital Center and NYU-Langone Medical Center.