Formula feeding education, or lack thereof

Reading through my Google alerts, I almost squealed with excitement when I saw a link entitled “Health Tip: Preparing Baby Formula” from none other than U.S. News and World Report. A major news outlet! Formula feeding education! Squee!

Well, turns out the article was less “squee” and more “eh”.

According to the esteemed publication, the formula-related health tip that was so vital that it necessitated being “called out” (publishing world lingo for highlighting a fact or quote) was the following:

Wash Your Hands.

The rest of the tips have to do with general hygiene- cleaning surfaces, sterilizing bottles, etc. I’m probably being unnecessarily snarky, because this is important information; it is important to keep things as clean and sterile as possible when making up an infant’s bottle. They also throw in one useful tip about keeping boiled water covered while cooling (great advice). But most of this is certainly not new information, and in many ways, I think it’s a waste of newsprint.

Why? First, I expect most parents know they are supposed to wash their hands and clean their bottles. What they may not know is why. There is no mention of the risk of bacterial infection here, so it just comes of sounding like vague, somewhat stodgy advice, like something your mother-in-law tells you in that tone. (You know the one.) The kind of advice that gets filed in the “I know I should do it, but come on, what’s the harm” portion of your conscience, alongside “floss twice a day” and “never jaywalk” (unless you are in Los Angeles. Then you probably take the jaywalking thing seriously, as the LAPD will ticket your ass for crossing where you shouldn’t). I think an acknowledgement that these precautions will help you avoid potentially deadly bacterial infections would make the advice seem a tad more topical.

But also, this is standard food prep protocol. There are other intricacies to formula feeding that may not be as intuitive- safety precautions like mixing the proper amounts of water to formula; not diluting the formula; using the right type of water; discarding formula after specific amounts of time; opting for ready-to-feed for newborns. Or what about other tips which might help avoid other formula-related health problems? Like a run down of the different types of formulas so that parents can choose the right type for their babies. Advice for understanding hunger cues. A bit of education on growth spurts; what’s normal when it comes to formula-fed babies and spit-up and elimination (both pee and poop); a quick description of how to feed a baby holding the bottle at a good angle?

I get that this was merely a half-column filler, not an 800-word feature. I understand that U.S. News & World Report isn’t in the business of imparting feeding advice to parents (and in fact, the article in question was syndicated, from Health Day) . And I seriously do appreciate the effort to give a bit of valuable info to formula feeding parents. Yet, I can’t help but wish that this half-column was put to better use. A short paragraph on when (and just as importantly, why) formula should be discarded would have been infinitely more interesting and useful.

There are a few reasons why formula feeding education is as hard to come by as a good house under half a million in the greater Los Angeles area (I’m bitter about real estate at the moment). Many people think it’s unnecessary; formula feeding is seen as the “easy way out”, and assumed to be as simple as scoop and shake. Some breastfeeding advocates believe that prenatal formula education/preparation is counterproductive to breastfeeding promotion – the theory being that if you discuss it, it will be taken as an endorsement, when formula should only be used in an all-else-has-failed scenario. (The World Health Organization’s “WHO Code” basically forbids health workers from even uttering the words “infant formula” until it becomes clear that there is no other option.)

What is puzzling to me about this situation is that breastfeeding, while definitely a lost art in our bottle-heavy society, does have an intuitive aspect to it. Or at least it is portrayed that way – something so natural, so instinctual, shouldn’t require training. Assistance, yes. Support, most definitely. Protection, you bet your bottom dollar. But instruction/education? That seems rather – well, quite literally, counterintuitive.

Formula feeding, on the other hand, is something which has always been a man-made, lab created, medically-approved (at least up until recent events) form of infant feeding. It does require instruction; you don’t see our primate cousins giving birth and popping open a can of Similac (although I am quite sure they could be trained to do so, considering how smart they are. I’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Scared the bejesus out of me). Yet parents leave their prenatal classes and hospital stays with plenty of info on birthing and baby care and breastfeeding, but little to no instruction on how to make a damn bottle.

The vast majority of babies will have some formula in their first year. Heck, by the time they are 6 months old, it’s a safe bet to assume most of them are partially, if not exclusively, formula fed. We can’t sell infant feeding as the number one predictor of infant health and development and simultaneously ignore the primary way our nation’s babies are being fed.  It’s bogus, and irresponsible.

This is not to imply that parents are putting their babies in dire jeopardy because they leave a bottle out too long, or forget to scrub their hands like Lady MacBeth before mixing formula. Heck, I committed almost every formula feeding sin and my kids are pretty normal. (Except for Fearlette’s suspicious fear of police helicopters, but I blame that on her past life.) But until we ensure that parents are properly educated on formula feeding – something that could be done with one quality, AAP-endorsed pamphlet, or a few minutes of discussion in a hospital baby care class – we can’t possibly get a clear idea of the real risks of formula feeding (I bet we’d see an even smaller difference in breastfed versus formula fed if all formula feeding parents were doing it correctly), or feel confident that all of our babies are getting the best version of whatever feeding method their parents have chosen.

For now, I’d suggest checking out Bottle Babies – a great non-profit organization run by some friends of mine. They’ve put together some excellent, research-based information on a myriad of bottle-related issues. Or feel free to click on the link to the FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide. And I hate to say it, but for the moment, the formula companies are probably the best resource for formula feeding parents. At least they give a crap about their customer base, even if this is rooted in a desire for customer loyalty and a fear of litigation.

And, ya know, remember to wash your hands.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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6 thoughts on “Formula feeding education, or lack thereof

  1. Thank you for this post. I actually believe you are right in what you have said and decided to myself research and do a pamphlet which I can give to prospective customers that for whatever reason decide to stop breastfeeding- since I have already seen quite a few! Besides as a breastfeeding counselor I think it is important for me to know the basics of bottle feeding.

    Thank you once more for your insightful information its been most helpful.

    • That’s awesome, Melissa! Would you be willing to share your pamphlet with us when your done… assuming the Fearless Formula Feeder herself approves, of course?

  2. I formula feed and I am not a failed breastfeeder. My kid’s first meal was planned before his conception and formula he did receive. There are times though when formula feeding IS challenging and there are no answers. Moment number one was in the nursing room off the nursery in the hospital. I was the only formula feeder and I could NOT get him to latch and suck on the bottle! Talk about feeling incompetent. I took my baby, bottle, and shame back to my room so I could keep my incompetence to myself…until my husband arrived and popped the bottle in and away they went. There were times that morning when I felt that surely breastfeeding must be easier! I didn’t try, but I was very tempted. Today one month old baby boy is fussy and gassy and grumpy and keeps getting the hiccups and every third hiccup he spits up/sort of pukes and I don’t know why and I am tired and can’t remember if he is always like this or fussier today and is it the bottle? The angle? The formula? The vaccination yesterday?

  3. I noticed a strong similarity in your argument, with teaching teens about contraceptive use. There are those who believe that instructing teens on how to use condoms safely and effectively is giving them permission to be complete whores ( and I mean boys and girls). The extreme BFing teachers seem to feel that if women knew about formula, or knew that formula was safe, they would just FF like crazy people.

    Both of those ideas are total crap. Teens will have sex whether we want them to or not, and I, for one, would rather my sons know how to protect themselves and their girlfriends if that is what they decide to do. Women, especially in America, often bottle feed. They continue to do this even after receiving the “breast is best” message. If they are going to bottle feed anyway, they may as well know how to do it right.

    The way I see if, if a woman really wants to breastfeed, and she can, then all the free formula samples in the world aren’t going to change her mind. But if she doesn’t or can’t, all the bullying and misinformation in the world isn’t going to change her mind either. Parents should be made aware of ALL of their options and the safest and most effective ways to carry them out. End of story.

  4. I find it funny that everyone seems to poop on Nestle but their helpline is still the best place to get information without having to worry that someone is going to guilt you for “giving up.”

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