Monday, 18 February 2013

So Now Formula Feeding Your Baby Is As Bad As Smoking?

Is feeding your baby formula as bad as smoking? Are mothers who don't breastfeed causing serious harm to their children's health? Should baby formula packaging come with a warning label similar to the ones found on cigarette packs?

Sounds crazy right? But according to a report published by the charity Save the Children, that's all true and is exactly what should happen. I'm not going to link to them but you can look them and their report up if you want to.

I read through the report, not all 75 pages of course, but I did read it. I focused mostly on the section where they talk about the makers of baby formula. Here's what I gleaned from my read-through.
  • The evil manufacturers of baby formula have to figure out a way to get women to buy their clearly inferior product. 
  • They are competing with a product (breast milk) which is not only superior in every way, but is free. So they really have their work cut out for them.
  • These evil companies are resorting to dastardly tactics in order to accomplish this goal. 
  • These dastardly tactics include
    • Advertising their products. (the horror)
    • Giving free samples to midwives and new parents. (how dare they)
    • Giving free gifts with the company logo to health care workers, i.e. pens, pads of paper, and such. (round them all up and throw them in jail now)
  • Something must be done to keep these evil companies from promoting their "poison" onto new mothers.
  • One reason something must be done is that these companies are offering something that costs money and many people don't have the money to buy this evil baby formula. 
  • After all, breast is best.
So their solution? Require all breast milk substitutes to have a warning label stating all the reasons why feeding this product to your child is a terrible idea. This warning label should be at least one third the size of the packaging. That's right folks,,,, one third the size of the package.

A huge label that shouts, "You are a terrible mother/father if you feed this to your baby!" "If you feed this to your baby you will probably ruin his/her health for life!" "So you better pop that boob back out and try again, because if you can't breastfeed then you are damaging your baby forever!"

Ok, I'm sure the label won't say those words specifically. I'm sure they will be all official and much more scary. I also know that the result of those words will make Mothers like me, who were unable to breastfeed feel even more guilty and horrible than we already felt the first time we opened a package of formula for our babies.

Plus, baby formula packaging already contains a disclaimer that says breast milk is best and that formula is a breast milk substitute. In fact, on the website for the brand I use (Aptamil) you have to click a disclaimer that says, "Breastfeeding is best for babies and provides many benefits. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, you eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast and bottle feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of your own breastmilk, and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. The social and financial implications of using an infant milk should be considered. Improper use of an infant milk or inappropriate foods or feeding methods may present a health hazard. If you use an infant milk, you should follow manufacturer’s instructions for use carefully – failure to follow the instructions may make your baby ill. Always consult your doctor, midwife or health visitor for advice about feeding your baby." before you can even view what products they sell. So why the need for a bigger warning label? 

I know that this charity mostly focuses on women and babies in the developing world and I think a lot of the work that they do is pretty great. But the things they recommend should (in their opinion) apply around the world. Which means these warning labels would be placed on all baby formula packaging in the UK and Europe, and in America as well.

Reading through their report I learned that in some places women don't know they should try to breastfeed within the first hour. In some of these countries they think they should feed their babies all kinds of strange things. There are also cultural issues that prevent women who may want to breastfeed from doing so. So I get the focus on education and the idea that breastmilk is best.

I also read in the report that the baby formula companies are targeting the developing world as new potential customers. They seem to spin this as a travesty. My opinion is that if women in the developing world have trouble breastfeeding, like I did, then isn't it wonderful that there is another option for them? That instead of these babies being fed cow's or goat's milk, or something else that is unsuitable for newborns, they can obtain a formula that will sustain their baby?

If a woman can't breastfeed and lives in a place where no suitable breastmilk substitute is available then what happens to that baby? My guess is that he or she will eventually die of malnutrition. So what's wrong with advertising an available option that could be the difference between a healthy baby and a dead one? And considering that the slogan for Save the Children is, "No Child Born to Die," you would think that they would want families to have every available option to be able to feed their children properly. Instead, they seem to be pushing the "only breastmilk will do" agenda.

I don't normally get involved with what I consider to be controversial issues here. Partly because it's not really that kind of blog and partly because I don't always want to "stir the pot" or in any way contribute to the drama that surrounds these kinds of debates. Especially when the debate is about breastfeeding vs formula feeding.

My take is that people should do what works best for their family. Not every Mother can breastfeed, and not all babies can either. Some women opt for breast feeding only, some opt for formula feeding only, and some do a combination. In some cases these are conscious decisions, and in other cases there was no option. In my opinion, these are very personal decisions and it disgusts me when people get all high and mighty and preach that their chosen way is the only way.

So the idea of putting a warning label on baby formula that is at least one third the size of the package? A label that lists all the things that are wrong with feeding your baby formula? A label that will make parents who are doing everything they can to take care of their babies feel awful? A label that would have made me feel even more guilty and inadequate about not being able to breastfeed than I already did? A label that at the moment is only put on things that are poisonous? A label like the kind you find on a carton of cigarettes?

I don't think so.


  1. Great post. I totally agree with you and you made some excellent points. I do like or agree with the only breast milk will do mentality. The hospital I work with recently got rid of the newborn nursery as a way to be more baby-friendly, which basically boils down to promoting breast-feeding exclusively. You have inspired me to post on my blog what we are doing with my twins (supplementing formula and breast-feeding) and the awful experiences that I had with the one pediatrician who heads the lactation department and the nurses on the post partum floor who made me feel like the worst mother for giving my babies formula. Thanks!!

  2. Breastfeeding skeeves me out. Seriously. I can't even think about it without shuddering. My kid is 6 years old, happily formula fed. She is brilliant and seriously the healthiest kid on the planet. I would not change my decision to bottle feed!

  3. The anti-formula pro exclusive breastfeeding craziness can get a little out of hand. I was with IKEA with a good friend of mine with who was bottle feeding her 8 month old, and she got a tongue lashing from a stranger. It didn't matter to that woman that my friend had breastfed her son for the first 3 months of his life until she couldn't pump enough at work for him anymore. She didn't matter that my friend is an engineer and her workplace provided her with a chair in a nasty bathroom to pump in. Until it is possible for all women to have access to pumping, or daycare in the workplace, or what have you, no one should have the right to judge when women need to formula feed. And that is just one example, as M stated, not all women choose to breastfeed, but when women DO choose to breastfeed it is nearly impossible to breastfeed exclusively and work.

  4. WOW. Given the language already on the website, I would think that the warnings are already going above and beyond! you'd think it would be easy to remember that formula is a product, if you don't like it, don't buy it. Just like EVERYTHING ELSE sold in any store.

  5. That is INSANE. Yet another way to break us down instead of healing and supporting.

  6. I agree that no woman should be made to feel guilty about how she chooses to feed her baby but formula companies do use some awful tactics to promote their product, both in developed and developing countries. The big problem in developing countries is the women are given free samples in hospitals, which does indeed reduce their supply, then when they go home they either cannot afford the product or they do not have access to safe water and/or sterile equipment which can cause serious illness and even death.

    It is a very complex issue which involves a lot of equally complex socio-economic aspects. It can be very easy as middle class, white women to say some of the things above (in your post and in the comments) and for us mothers to be pitted against each other. If you state any pro-breastfeeding or anti-formula companies (that's anti-formula companies not anti-formula-feeding-mother) ideas you get branded as a breastfeeding nazi who thinks formula feeding mums are terrible mothers (obviously there are people out there who take it too far, approaching a mother who is bottle feeding and giving her grief is clearly unacceptable). We should all be focusing on better ante-natal education that is accessible to mothers from any background, more post-natal support and more mother-to-mother unity whatever our choices.

  7. About 20 years ago, I was involved in campaigning against Nestle with the baby milk action group, because Nestle were repeatedly in breach of the WHO guidelines on the promotion of formula to women in developing countries.

    Liz is right - this is a really complex issue, and context is really important. Developing countries are very different to developed countries, particularly where there are additional issues to do with 1) cultural practices, e.g. not BF for first 3 days 2) hygiene and sanitation/access to clean water and 3) education - the ability to follow instructions about making up formula. Generally speaking, developing countries usually have very high breast feeding rates - and much of the issue around formula in those places is to do with aggressive marketing and failure to abide by WHO guidelines.

    Funnily enough, the highest breast feeding rates in the UK are usually among BME groups - particularly asylum seekers.

    I agree that no woman should be made to feel guilty for the choices they make about birth or feeding or parenting generally. Breast feeding is not natural or easy for many women - but, at the same time - the support that many of us receive at home/hospital when we are struggling with breast feeding is often not ideal or up-to-date!

    The reality is that most mothers aren't rabidly pro or anti BF/formula - most of us know that if things had been different then we might have ended up feeding in a different way.

  8. Liz and Knitlass, thank you for stating your opinions so kindly! I have breastfed all 3 of my children but would never make a mom feel guilty for choosing otherwise. I do try to make sure all moms have correct information about both sides.

    I came on simply to reiterate what the previous two ladies have said, in regards to formula in other countries that may not be as well off. Sadly, the formula companies do not supply the clean water to make the formula, which leads to so many problems.

    Please don't lump all breastfeeding mamas in with the extremists! :)