Annie over at PhD in Parenting recently said something that got me thinking. (Not the first time that’s happened. My brain usually hurts after visiting that blog…I have no idea how she manages to be so eloquent about so many things, when half the time I resort to half-assed puns.) Someone responded to her post about the Darcia Narvaez debacle and referred to formula as “junk”; Annie pointed out that this was probably not the best approach, but also wondered why “there is not a greater lobby among formula feeding families to improve the product, improve the ingredients, and get BPA and other toxins out of the containers.”
When I read this a couple of evenings ago, my initial reaction was that I don’t see much need for improvement in the product, considering how it has allowed my children to grow and thrive. But the question lingered, much like the noxious odor of my ex-coworker Frank. (Seriously. I worked with the guy a decade ago and I still have a sharp olfactory memory of his scent. It was RIPE….)
As our own FFF Antigone so wisely pointed out in the same thread, formula may seem “junky” because of the processed ingredients, but in reality “formula MUST be processed in order to be digestible and give the right balance of nutrients to infants. Infants cannot digest solid foods and other animal milks are too high in protein, too low in carbohydrates and fat, and missing essential vitamins.” Smart girl, that Antigone. But I’m not sure this negates what’s at the heart of Annie’s point. There is always room for improvement, and maybe it is high time we started fighting that battle in addition to the fight we rage against the bullying and propaganda of the formula-is-risky campaign.
Or, maybe the battles are one and the same.
When I discuss the issue of breastfeeding pressure with feminists, the one thing I always try and argue is that protecting our right to breastfeed cannot compete with our responsibility to protect a woman’s right to choose how she uses her body, and how she defines what makes her a woman and a mother. These rights are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, I think we need to be careful about separating a political/social need for infant feeding choice, with a consumer need for the best product possible.
I’m willing to bet that the reason most formula feeders haven’t lobbied for better product is because as a group, we are constantly on the defensive; to admit that a product has flaws is to give ample ammunition to those that look down upon our choices. Because of this, formula companies are spending money on marketing (further perpetuating the myth that we all formula feed because some smarter-than-us-silly-mommies advertising exec told us to, subliminally, by putting a blond woman in an ad instead of a brunette) rather than research and development.
Breastfeeding science has focused primarily on proving how much better breastmilk is than formula, without asking the more productive – and interesting – question: WHY. I’m talking about the biological, chemical why, not the moral or fundamental why. (i.e., I’m not interested in platitudes about how the natural will always trump the artificial, because that doesn’t get us anywhere.) What is in breastmilk that makes it superior, and is there a way to reproduce this?
****Before we continue, I want to be clear: I think that purely as a substance, breastmilk is pretty darn awesome. It’s not unicorn blood, but as a food, it kicks ass. Does this mean I think that on a case by case basis, it is going to make that much difference in a child’s life? No. But I also think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. My argument is, and always has been, that every parent needs to do a risk/benefit assessment, weighing the benefits of breastmilk (if this is even an option) against the risks of what it might do to the mother and her family emotionally and physically. And of course, if a baby is intolerant of his mother’s milk, like my son was, or the mother is not making sufficient milk to feed her child, then we also must weigh the negative implications of breastfeeding a child for whom breast is clearly NOT best.****
Imagine what would happen if instead of a study showing a correlation between better cognitive development and breastfeeding, the research focused on what was conferring that benefit. First, they’d have to use two sample groups – one that was exclusively pumping and feeding breastmilk in bottles; the other that was predominately feeding from the breast. Depending on these results, we could infer whether the benefit was coming from the milk or some aspect of the breastfeeding experience. If it was the milk that was increasing IQ, then a separate study could be undertaken to try and decipher which element of breastmilk was doing so. This ingredient could then possibly be created synthetically and added to formula.
Rather than approaching breastmilk as if it were magic, let’s make it subject to the rules of our reality. It is a substance, and substances can be analyzed. By focusing on the cause rather than the effect, we could help babies thrive without essentializing their mothers. We could free women from biological imperatives, and instead give them choices which didn’t make them feel they were putting their own needs before their childrens’. It would level the playing field, so that fathers could be the primary caregiver in every sense of the word, and that adoptive parents wouldn’t feel they had to induce lactation to feed their very wanted babies appropriately.
None of this is to say that I think commercially available formulas are insufficient – because I think they do a great job nourishing our children - but there is always room for improvement. That’s one advantage of a manufactured product over a biological one; it can be altered to our liking. Let’s look at the DHA/ARA addition to formula in recent years, for example. While this remains controversial, I do believe that this additive is beneficial. One study found that formula with DHA/ARA had a comparably protective effect against autism as breastmilk. Or, take the recent research suggesting that kids raised on partially hydrolzed protein formula gain weight at similar rates to breastfed kids, versus the steeper weight curve shown in kids fed on normal formulas. To my mind, this is evidence that formulas DO differ; that the old adage that “all formulas are the same”, usually spoken in disdainful/dismissive tone by a pediatrician or breastfeeding advocate, is incorrect. It does matter, and I worry that we are being told it doesn’t due to the current breast-or-bust mentality.
Why is Similac spending their money on paying transparent lip service to breastfeeding rather than serving its true customer base – those who have already chosen formula, or had it chosen for them by circumstance? Why is the government taking the easy way out – telling women to bear the burden of responsibility for our nation’s health and intelligence – rather than investing money into research for better formulas that can improve health on their own merit? If what we feed our babies in the first year really has that much of an impact on lifelong health, this should be a priority – because in reality, not all babies are going to be able to be breastfed, as long as we want to live in a world where women have the freedom to decide how to use their bodies; whether to work or stay home; whether to be a primary caregiver or not. In reality, there are going to be children raised by single dads; there are going to be children raised by grandparents; there are going to be children who are adopted by parents who aren’t able to induce lactation, even if they want to. There are going to be children whose mothers don’t produce enough milk, or who are on drugs not compatible with breastfeeding. If the anti-formula camp truly believe formula is so incredibly sub-par, then why the hell aren’t they rioting in the streets demanding better product so that babies will not suffer?
I do not believe formula companies are on our side, nor do I believe they have to be. They are corporations like any other, and I do not in any way think they are on par with Big Tobacco, like some have argued; I resent that they are treated as such under the auspices of WHO Code. On the other hand, if we are demanding that fast food restaurants put calorie counts on their menus, maybe it is appropriate to demand some accountability from formula companies. But I still think the onus of responsibility should fall on the same folks insisting that all women breastfeed. I think they have a responsibility to exhaust all other options, before they demand that of us.
Breastfeeding should be a rewarding, warm, loving experience, and I wish it were promoted as such. It isn’t, though. It is being promoted as medicine. Medicine which requires a physical, emotional effort on the part of mothers who live in a society where motherhood is difficult enough. If we are going to continue down this path, then I think we as formula feeders need to start making demands of our own. Better research. Better evidence. Better options.
And now, I better shut up.