There has been an influx of anti-formula articles popping up in the past few weeks, on such high-profile online venues as the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Instead of doing my “real” work, I’ve been spending all my time responding to these ill-informed, mind-numbingly offensive missives. Unfortunately for you all, I’ve wasted the best of my impassioned comebacks in those comments. You’re going to have to sit through a little lesson instead.
Don’t click away just yet – it’s a good lesson. I think it would behoove all of us to have a few quick facts in our arsenals that we can pull out and use to put the smackdown on ignorant internet bullies. I’ve noticed a pattern in the discussions that evolve around these articles, and there are five “generic” formula feeding myths that are hurled around like incorrect information-filled water balloons, soaking not only the intended target but everyone in the vicinity (okay, so that was a lame analogy, but I went to the Phish show last night and my brain is mush). I want to tackle them in a succinct way so you guys will be armed and ready to defend yourselves against this particularly insidious breed of sanctimommy….
Formula Feeding Myth #1: Formula feeders are selfish/stupid/something to be pitied
This mythology is based on a fairy tale called Sleeping Beauty and the Big Bad Formula Executive. Once upon a time, a beautiful princess slept through her entire pregnancy. She snored through her prenatal classes; was never awake enough to read “The Baby Book” or any of the literature hoisted on her by her obstetrician; and dreamed of unicorns and elfin creatures while everyone and their brother asked about how she was planning on feeding her child. She woke up right as she was giving birth, at which point a scary wolf in sheep’s clothing (a formula marketing executive dressed as a postpartum nurse) dangled a bottle of formula in her face like a delicious, poisonous apple. Considering she’d slept through the past nine months and had no clue that breast was best, she couldn’t resist this temptation, and fed her newly born babe the disgusting substance, at which point he immediately turned into a fat, sickly lump. The princess was then promptly locked in a tower for the crime of being The Worst Mom Ever, where she remained until she turned into the Wicked Formula Feeding Witch of the West, and escaped the tower to wreak havoc on other sleepy mommies.
There are alternative versions of this story, which I’m sure you all know. Sometimes the princess is a selfish, career-minded, coldhearted wicked stepmother type; other times she is the Fool, sitting in the corner with a bottle-shaped dunce cap. Ultimately, the unhappy ending is the same – the princess fails to nourish her child because she has either been taken advantage of, or is flawed in some way. Neither of these options are particularly empowering or complimentary.
Here’s the real story, and it ain’t a fairy tale: not all women can to breastfeed. Not all women want breastfeed. Some feel bad about, and others don’t. Just like we conceive differently and birth differently, we feed our babies differently. Reading through the many Friday features on this blog alone will support my assertion that plenty of educated, supported mothers “fail” to breastfeed successfully (or at least what others have defined as “successfully” – this is all relative). There are “barriers” to breastfeeding that the zealots refuse to consider: the way we feel about our bodies (and while overcoming these emotions to breastfeed might be healing for some, it isn’t possible for everyone); the way we want to or have to parent (in our generation, many dads are taking on the primary caregiver role, and so bottles – either of pumped milk or formula – may make this possible; adoptive parents are now encouraged to induce lactation, but this is not possible for everyone, nor is it of interest to everyone); physical conditions that make breastfeeding difficult; babies who prefer the bottle to breast no matter what is attempted to alter this preference; babies who cannot tolerate human milk; mothers who are so depressed and stressed out while adjusting to new motherhood that adding breastfeeding difficulties to their list of stressors might push them over the edge…. the list goes on.
Yes, formula companies have used, and continue to use, insidious tactics to market their products (please note that this is most relevant in third world countries, where the formula companies really have acted like giant, deadly douchebags). But this does not negate the immense pressure exerted on many of us by our physicians, the blogosphere, and other moms. We’ve learned to be skeptical of advertisers, but not media pundits, and especially not the “authorities”. When Michelle Obama tells us to breastfeed, we listen. When our physicians tell us it’s the most important thing we can do as parents, we listen. On the other hand, most of us don’t look at ads in magazines, and we fast -forward past tv ads with our DVRs. I think the formula companies are actually facing a formidable (ha!) opponent in the “formula is risky” propaganda machine.
Point being, using the argument that “we’re raging against the pro-formula establishment, not moms” argument doesn’t hold much water for that water balloon.
Formula Feeding Myth #2: Formula kills babies
No, actually, water kills babies. Poverty kills babies. Formula is just a conduit.
In third world countries, babies do die because they are formula fed, but it is not the formula in and of itself. It is because the formula is mixed with – and bottles cleaned by – bad water. Or, because parents get started on formula (this is where the Big Bad Formula Wolf is a very real threat – folks in third world countries are not as media-saavy, on average, as we are, considering they don’t have computers or WiFi. Or toilets. Not that toilets have anything to do with media, except that both are receptacles for a lot of crap) and can’t afford it, so they end up “stretching” it out using less powder and more (bad) water, which can lead to malnourishment or dehydration.
This is awful, and ample reason to use our resources to help women in these situations breastfeed (for example, ensuring that the mothers are sufficiently fed so that the breastfeeding doesn’t take a toll on their often malnourished bodies). But to say that “formula kills” is inaccurate and misleading. That’s not just semantics; it detracts from the real threats of unclean water and extreme poverty. And also scares women in affluent cultures with clean water, for no good reason.
Formula Feeding Myth #3: In cultures like Norway where breastfeeding is the “norm”, all women can breastfeed. Therefore women here who say they were unable to produce milk/ had latching issues are lying to make themselves feel better.
Even in the lactivist Mecca, women have breastfeeding problems. Check out this study, which shows a significant number of Norwegian women contending with the same sorts of issues seen on this blog. Or this one, which cites evidence that even with the “best” practices, breastfeeding success is still correlated with maternal education, income and age, just like it is here. Also, note that most women in Norway are supplementing with things other than breastmilk by four months. Interesting, right?
Formula Feeding Myth #4: The science has shown, without a doubt, that formula feeding is risky. Saying that “I was formula fed and I am fine” is anecdotal evidence, and not worth a damn.
Actually, if we are talking observational studies based on self-reported data, as many of the breastfeeding studies are, the “science” you’re speaking of here is little more than anecdotal data on a larger, more “official” scale. What the science has shown is a consistent positive correlation between breastfeeding and a decrease in ear infections and gastrointestinal infections. There has been inconsistent, but plentiful, evidence that breastfeeding is correlated with many other wonderful things, but again, this is primarily based on observational data which, as we’ve discussed on here many times, most often does not control for all the relevant factors. Since we have seen a generally positive correlation with breastfeeding across studies, we can probably assume that breastfeeding is a healthier choice in many ways. But to what extent, we just don’t know, and regardless, as long was you are in the clean-water-ample-formula club, the “risks” are so minimal that they are far outweighed by the benefits of having a happy, healthy mom around.
Formula Feeding Myth #5: Breastfeeding improves bonding/Breastfeeding moms are better moms/Breastfed babies are happier and more adjusted.
This one has been dispelled, and yet it remains in the folklore, as strongly held a belief as any other. From experience, I want to suggest that you won’t get anywhere arguing over the meme that breastfeeding mothers have been shown to have a better bond with their babies (although if your opponent hits below the belt with that stupid study correlating child neglect/abuse and formula feeding, send ’em here). Rather, you may want to bring up that what most child development experts believe is that a secure bond is formed through attentive, attuned parenting. A woman who is distracted by physical or emotional pain is not going to be as interactive and responsive to her baby, as much as she might want to. Our priority should be ensuring that new mothers are as relaxed, supported and mentally/emotionally healthy as possible – that is what is going to produce happier, better adjusted kids, as much as nuture has anything to do with it (click here for an interesting take on this issue from our friends at the Center for Parenting Studies in the UK – thems good people…)
I have to go pick up my fat, sickly lump of a formula-fed child from preschool now, but there are obviously a myriad of other “myths” that I’d be happy to dispel. If there are any that particularly irk you, tell me about it in the comment thread and I will tackle them next.
Happy web surfing, freedom fighters…;)