My take on Feeding Frenzy. Why suppressing the promotion of infant formula has nothing to do with shaming mothers.

Welcome to my first English blog post. After resisting the blogosphere for years, I was persuaded by a Serbian friend to do some blogging on her site (she translates my posts into Serbian.). But this is my first foray into English blogging. I have no idea how often I will be doing this, but here goes.

Yesterday, the Globe and Mail ran a story about a New York City initiative to stop giving out free infant formula to mothers in hospitals. It was, for the most part, a good story. But it ran with the unfortunate (but predictable) headline “Feeding Frenzy,” which set up a bogus controversy about the “government” robbing women of choice in infant feeding.

Not surprisingly, there was an angry letter in today’s paper from a mother who’d had a really tough time trying to breastfeed her daughter and switched to formula as a result. She said the New York initiative shamed mothers who fed their babies formula.

I have tons of sympathy for mothers who’ve had this experience.  I have talked to lots of them and some of their stories all but had me in tears. These were women who wanted to breastfeed (often desperately), had problems that they didn’t get the right help with, switched to formula because they saw no alternative, and felt really bad about it.  Some seem to turn their anger on the people who promote breastfeeding or even on breastfeeding itself. So when advocates take steps to suppress the promotion of formula as a way of protecting breastfeeding, some formula feeding moms take it as a slap in the face.

It’s not. The New York initiative is not about saying formula is bad (although, it is unquestionable inferior to human milk – I once interviewed a scientist who worked for a formula company and he called the industry’s attempts to mimic breastmilk “an utter failure.” Nor is it about shaming women. And in no way does it stop mothers and babies who need formula from getting it in hospital.  All the initiative does is prevent hospitals from giving mothers free samples of formula to take home. How does that take away a mother’s choice? What? I can’t choose what beer to buy without free samples? Parents can go out and buy any formula they want whenever they want, for whatever reasons they have (and those reasons are none of my business). All the initiative does is stop hospitals from helping formula companies promote their products.

What so many people can’t seem to understand is the way that, in hospitals, infant formula has often been thrown at mothers and babies who didn’t need it. I’ve heard tons of stories about this too. Many people can’t believe that because all they can see is how heavily breastfeeding is promoted. But infant formula is heavily, heavily promoted as well, although often in ways that are invisible to most people. New York’s initiative to stop giving out free formula samples in hospitals is one way to stop the sneaky promotion of formula.

I support it unreservedly, and I hope more hospitals follow suit.

Having said that, we simply must find more and better ways to help mothers solve breastfeeding problems, because problems are very common.  Today’s Parent did a big breastfeeding survey several years ago, which I helped design. We had over 7000 responses, probably one of  the biggest breastfeeding surveys ever done. Only 10% of the respondents (who, by the way, breastfed longer than overage) said they had no problems at all. So clearly, if we want to help women breastfeed we should, as Dr. Jack Newman once said to me, take every cent of the piddling amount of money we spent on breastfeeding promotion and put it into helping mothers solve breastfeeding problems.  That may be a tough sell in our health promotion-mad world.  It’s easier to tell people to make good health choices than to help them follow through on those choices.

We also have to help formula feeding mothers not feel like pariahs. I can’t claim to have met all formula feeding moms. But every one I ever met wanted to breastfeed.  They felt terrible when they stopped.  They don’t need anyone’s help to feel worse.

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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5 Responses to My take on Feeding Frenzy. Why suppressing the promotion of infant formula has nothing to do with shaming mothers.

  1. Holly Bennett says:

    A fine start! Looking forward to more uncommon sense.

  2. Tori Owen says:

    I had lots of trouble bf’ing my preemie and ended up using everything from special pillows to nipple shields to deluxe pumping machines! She has in hospital for a month, and although I was a little surprised and maybe even a little embarrassed by the the ‘big’ allotment of samples I brought home on that magic day, I was grateful. We didn’t have a lot of cash, and she was only able to take some from me and we had to supplement. It wasn’t long after our samples were gone, mind you that she had ‘caught up’ (or maybe I had) and we didn’t require them so much but we sure knew which we liked and which we didn’t! Yay for samples!

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Tori: This is why it’s really hard to come up with iron-clad policies that fit every case. I was referring to the general practice of giving formula samples to all mothers. Your case, involving a preemie, is a little different, obviously. And I hope that policies will allow for mothers who need (or want) formula to get the support they need.

  3. Courtney says:

    I want free formula to be available for those who need it, I just wish they would use some restraint. It may not have changed the end result, but it would have been less stressful for me if samples were offered instead of foisted on me.
    I was torn between breastfeeding support that discouraged supplementing and a pediatrician, rather than the hospital, who constantly gave me samples. She would say my baby was doing well and I had no breastfeeding problems at first but she was persistent that I take samples just in case. I now realize my thoughts were colored by PPD I wasn’t yet aware of, but at the time I was afraid supplementing would destroy breastfeeding success and a doctor offering so much formula must suspect I wasn’t going to succeed!

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