I love when I’m right. I mean, it happens so infrequently (at least according to Fearless Husband).
Even before the Cronobacter scare of 2011, I’d dramatically changed my tune about formula preparation and safety. The research I read surrounding bacterial infection in babies due to formula or bottle use made me see just how piss poor our education on bottle feeding truly is; this is what spurred my interest in starting some sort of pre or post-natal educational workshop/literature for bottle feeders, and also made me suspect that there was an astonishingly simple – albeit prohibitively expensive – solution to the bacteria problem.
Safety, thy name is Ready-To-Feed.
Until now I’ve merely been able to suggest that my personal belief is that ready-to-feed nursettes are the safest bet for newborns, and especially for late pre-term babies or those with any sort of compromised immune system. Now, a study published in Pediatrics gives scientific credit to my completely unscientific gut feeling.
I’d say squeeeand do a little dance of egotistical joy,
but unfortunately I can’t. Because we are talking about infant safety here, and the solution which this study is suggesting is not going to be feasible for many parents due to the cost involved. This is turning my happy ego dance into a sad waltz. Which sucks, because who doesn’t enjoy a good happy ego dance?
The study, Prevention of Invasive Cronobacter Infection in Young Infants Fed Powdered Infant Formulas, looked at the records of 68 babies infected with invasive cronobacter between 1958-2003, and 30 babies between 2004-2010. A couple of things to note before we get into the nitty-gritty of the study:
1. Invasive Cronobacter infection is extremely rare, and usually affects pre-term babies and very young neonates (all of the infants reflected in these records were under two months old).
2. This study had some significant limitations, considering that it was conducted using records from a variety of international organizations (CDC, USDA, WHO, as well as “personal communications” and “publications”. Definitions might have varied, as well as the quality of the information. This might explain the shocking disparity between the cases reported in the older batch (1958-2003) and the newer batch (2004-2010).
Now that the caveats are out of the way, let’s continue. The study found very different statistics in the two chronological batches. In the older batch, only 24% of the babies were full term; out of the more recent cases, 58% were full term. That’s a radical leap. Plus, while in the 1958-2003 group only 21% became symptomatic at home, that percentage jumped to 52% between 2004-2010. This may have something to do with the fact that there were half the number of cases in the more modern group versus the older one; if bacterial contamination was becoming more rare, then perhaps we’re dealing with a newer or more virulent strain in the new millennium. But I also wonder if part of the disparity between the characteristics of the cases has to do with the lack of formula feeding guidance. The resurgence of breastfeeding since 2000 has led to many fantastic outcomes, but the downside, as we’ve discussed before, is a refusal to address the needs of formula feeding parents. Historically, concerns about bacterial infection were focused on NICUs; the tubing used to deliver food to the tiniest babies could easily become contaminated if the utmost care wasn’t taken, and given the fragile systems of premature or sick infants… well, it wasn’t a great combination of risk factors. But looking at the statistics used in this study, it seems that in the past 12 years, full-term babies in their parent’s care – at home – were equally at risk. I think it merits further reflection, at least, to consider if these cases might have been due to parents being given no guidance or support with formula feeding. We know from our numerous conversations here, and on the FFF Facebook page, that most of us were given ample education on breastfeeding (even if we didn’t get much practical support); very few of us were instructed on how to formula feed safely, sometimes with the excuse from more intolerant healthcare professionals that there was no “safe” way to formula feed.
Regardless, even if we were given better instruction on safe bottle feeding practices, very young infants fed powdered formula are at significantly higher risk of becoming ill from invasive cronobacter. The Pediatrics study found that out of all infected infants studied, 26% had received breastmilk, 23% had received RTF, and 90% had received either powdered infant formula or human milk fortifier (which is another caveat I forgot to mention – powdered human milk also posed a significant risk, not just powdered formula. Apparently Cronobacter loves powder of any sort).
Okay- just so we are crystal clear here – the lowest percentage of infected babies came in the group fed ready-to-feed formula only. It even beat breastmilk (not by much, but I think it should be mentioned, since it would be if it were the opposite). So it’s a no-brainer that the study’s author then recommends the following:
Invasive Cronobacter infection is extremely unusual in infants not fed powdered infant formula/Human Milk Fortifier. RTFs are commercially sterile, require minimal preparation, and are competitively priced. The exclusive use of breastmilk and/or RTF for infants <2 months old should be encouraged.
I’ve been advising that newborns use RTF whenever possible for awhile now, but every time I do I feel like a classist a-hole. Because let’s be honest – the stuff is expensive. Even if you buy the 32-oz containers rather than the more costly (but sterile) nursettes, you’re still talking a major difference in cost for the recommended two months of use. And those first 2 months, there is a lot of wasted formula – babies are erratic, not on a schedule, parents are still figuring out hunger cues… it takes a few months before you know Junior will take exactly 4 oz every 4 hours. Powdered formula is significantly cheaper. And god help you if your baby ends up on a hypoallergenic – buying the RTF version of that stuff will seriously kill your bank account.
The big elephant in the room, of course, is that the formula typically given away in those controversial hospital swag bags is ready to feed – often in the form of sterile nursettes. Not that the amount in the bags would feed a baby for the entire two month window of risk, but the bags I received – generously “supplemented” by the maternity ward nurses since our breastfeeding-friendly hospital didn’t have many formula feeding mothers and there were plenty of leftover bags – gave me enough formula to get us through the first few weeks. Every little bit counts.
Now, I’m not naive enough to believe that the formula companies are giving away RTF out of the kindness of their hearts. But considering that the Ban the Bags movement has grown in popularity, and hospitals are going Baby-Friendly right and left – they are going to need an alternative way to market their products. Why couldn’t we set up a program which would give parents that have chosen to formula feed (or supplement) before leaving the maternity ward to request a “gift” of ready to feed formula? Formula companies could still reap the rewards of brand loyalty, and look somewhat altruistic in the meantime. The parents who receive these samples could be the same ones who already were forced to sign documentation which labeled them as formula feeders, so what would be the harm?
There needs to be a way to provide supplementing and exclusively formula-feeding parents with the safest breastfeeding substitutes possible. In the first two months of life, ready-to-feed formula is the safest commercial alternative. If the formula companies would be wiling to provide at least a few weeks of RTF to take the financial edge off, it might help parents afford RTF for the subsequent 6-7 weeks.
Seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again… you know what Fearless Husband says. I’m hardly ever right.