This is why I hate politics.
Earlier today, Jennifer Doverspike’s scathing indictment of Latch On NYC popped up on the Federalist website. By this evening, Amanda Marcotte had written a similarly scathing indictment of Jennifer’s piece on Slate. Both talked about hospital policies, formula feeder paranoia, and boobs. But in the end, what should have been a smart point-counterpoint between two passionate, intelligent women turned into a steaming pile of another bodily substance.
Yep, I’m talking about shit.
Look, guys, I’m sorry for the language, but I’m done being classy, at least for tonight. Tonight, my Boston-bred, townie self is coming out, because I. Have. Flipping. HAD IT.
Doverspike’s piece does veer into political territory, mostly from the use of the term “nanny state”, a phrase that is undoubtably evocative (and apparently intoxicating) in today’s partisan climate. There were portions of her article that made me (a self-proclaimed, sole member of the Turtle party – our platform is that we just hide our heads in our shells whenever political issues arise. Anyone’s welcome to join!) a little uncomfortable, mostly because I worried that her important message would get lost by those on the Left. But I naively thought (us Turtles are naive about such things, considering we start singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever someone brings up Congress and prefer to our news from the Colbert Report) that she’d covered these bases with her final paragraph:
There are, of course, many laws the government issues for our protection and those of our children. Seatbelt laws, child car seat booster requirements, bans on drop side cribs and helmet laws. Regardless of whether or not these encompass valid risks (many do, some don’t), they do not encroach on personal freedom the way laws regarding parenting methods do. And don’t get me wrong; this goes in all directions. Infant feeding, and the personal freedoms associated with it, is not a liberal or conservative issue.
Apparently, it is a liberal or conservative issue, at least according to Marcotte, whose response to Doverspike felt far nastier than necessary. Marcotte accuses Doverspike of not doing her homework regarding the implementation of the WHO Code, for example:
What Doverspike fails to mention is why the WHO wrote out these regulations in the first place, something a quick Google search reveals. As reported at the time by theNew York Times, researchers had discovered that poor parents were stretching out formula by watering it down, which was leading to malnutrition in infants. In addition, places that lack clean drinking water are places where formula feeding is downright dangerous. There are substantial benefits, particularly worldwide, to creating a culture where breast-feeding is the go-to way to feed children, and formula is only viewed as a supplement for cases where breast-feeding isn’t working. Of course, that does cut into formula company profits, so if that’s your priority, by all means, bash the WHO’s efforts to keep babies healthy some more.
Huh. See, that’s odd, because I clearly remember reading something in Doverspike’s piece about this very issue… let’s see… ah, right:
Unlike the city of New York, the WHO has valid reasons to be concerned with breastfeeding rates worldwide. After all, in less developed countries not breastfeeding may mean instead using cow’s milk for infants. When formula is used, the risks of it being prepared incorrectly and using contaminated water is rather high…The WHO should focus being on how to educate and support women in developing countries regarding the dangers of cow’s milk, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the importance of correctly mixing formula. Unfortunately, the WHO Code saves most of its energy in marginalizing formula companies, requiring hospitals to under no circumstances allow formula advertising and requiring that product samples only be given for research at the institutional level — “In no case,” it stipulates, “should these samples be passed on to mothers.” The WHO is also requiring labels stating the superiority of breastfeeding and warning to not use the product until consulting with a health professional.
Marcotte also dismisses Doverspike’s concerns that under Latch On, formula ”must be guarded and distributed with roughly the same precautions as addictive and harmful narcotics” by citing a “sober-minded assessment” that she claims “shows that no such things are happening”. This “sober-minded assessment” is a CNN option piece from writer Taylor Newman, who repeatedly brings up her own breastfeeding experience in a hospital with piss-poor support. Newman engages in some of the most immature name-calling I’ve seen in a respected news source – those who disagree with her opinion of Latch On are “obnoxious”, “unhinged” they write “badly-written” posts that are just ‘kicking up dust”. (If this is sober-minded, hand over the vodka. This is mean-girl, bitchy, completely anti-feminist bullshit, is what it is. If a man called a fellow woman writer “unhinged” or accused her of being hysterical, I bet we’d see plenty of backlash from Slate. ) She also makes the fatal mistake so many reporters, pundits and advocates have made in this tiresome debate: she’s only seeing it through the lens of her own experience. It may not seem like a huge deal to someone who wanted to breastfeed (and ultimately did, successfully) that new moms will have to ask for formula each time a baby needs to eat, or that they will have to endure a lecture on the risks and intense questioning of their decision. But try living through that experience as, say, a single mom who was molested as a child. Imagine you don’t have anyone around to defend you, to demand that the nurses treat your decision not to use your body in a particular manner with respect. Imagine that you don’t feel like reliving your abuse and telling a total stranger – repeatedly – why the idea of letting a baby suck on your breasts makes you want to throw up.
I know I’m digressing here, and again, I’m sorry to be throwing my usual I-Support-You, let’s all hold hands and braid each other’s hair Pollyanna-esque, evolved FFF persona out the window. This is old school FFF, the angry one, the one whose claws come out when I see that women are being told their voices don’t matter, their concerns don’t matter, their choices don’t matter. The one who refuses to allow an important discussion – a women’s rights discussion, not a political one – get bogged down in right vs. left rhetoric.
Marquette’s choice of image to go along with her article is a baby holding a bottle with the caption “Freedom Fighters”. Again, I have to ask – really? Fine, be mad that the Libertarian Federalist invoked the Nanny State and beat up on poor old Bloomberg. Rage against that. But to belittle those of us who care about this issue is petty and cruel. And to ignore – once again – that what Latch On’s PR machine told the press was quite different from what was written in the actual materials used to implement the program; to ignore that no one has actually done a follow-up story since the initiative was announced which reports actual accounts from actual women who actually delivered in actual Latch On hospitals and used actual formula – this is just poor journalism.
Feminists, journalists, bloggers – I belong to all of your clubs, and I’m sure you’re about to revoke my membership, but I have to ask: Why are we rehashing the same arguments over and over, instead of discussing how we could come to a more beneficial, neutral ground? For example – couldn’t women be counseled on the benefits of breastfeeding before they enter the emotional sauna of the postpartum ward? Yes, I realize that not all women have access to prenatal care, but for those who do, this seems like a practical and beneficial adjustment. If these issues are discussed beforehand, at least a mom who knows from the start that she doesn’t want to nurse can sign whatever documentation is necessary to tell the state s has been fully informed of the “risks” and “still insists” (Latch On’s term, not mine) on formula feeding. For those who change their minds while in the maternity ward – well, couldn’t we just agree that she gets one lecture on why it’s a bad decision, and then receives the education, support and materials she needs to feed her baby safely, rather than having to go through the whole rigamarole every time her infant begins rooting?
Or here’s another idea – take the hyperbole out of the initiative. Stop saying these things are “baby-friendly” or “progressive” or “empowering” because they aren’t necessarily so. And by saying that they are, you get people all riled up, politically. You start hearing terms like “nanny state” because some of us don’t want to be told how we should feel (or how our babies should feel, for that matter. If my mom couldn’t feed me and some nurses weren’t letting me access the next best thing, I’d be hella pissed, and that environment would become decidedly baby unfriendly. Especially when I punched the person refusing my mom the formula in the nose with my tiny baby fist). You start getting feminists shouting about second waves and third waves and whether women should feel empowered by their ladyparts or held down by them. It’s one big mess, is what I’m saying. So can we stop it, now? Can we start writing articles that are balanced reports rather than press releases for a particular administration or cause? Can we stop hurling insults at each other just because we don’t agree on what being a mother should mean?
Can we please, for the love of all things holy, just flipping stop?
One of the most interesting interviews I did in my research for Bottled Up was with a physician who had studied breastfeeding-related neonatal hypernatremia (severe dehydration leading to electrolyte imbalance). We discussed the fact that these days, this condition is typically caught early and can be treated successfully. But the doctor also cautioned that while the prognosis wasn’t usually dire in terms of long-term health (thanks to modern medicine), we shouldn’t forget about the emotional and financial effects on the parents. He worried about a first time mom, trying to do the best for her child, who ends up seeing that baby hospitalized – sometimes for weeks- due to what she might perceive as her own failure to nourish him adequately.
I’ve been thinking about this interview since I read several articles yesterday, detailing a new study about the same condition. According to the Guardian (“Breastfeeding problems rarely lead to serious illness, study says“), a new paper on neonatal hypernatraemia found that “Very few babies become dehydrated and seriously ill because they are not getting enough milk from breastfeeding…Dr Sam Oddie and colleagues found only 62 cases from May 2009 to June 2010, a prevalence of seven in every 100,000 live births… the babies were admitted to hospital, mostly because of weight loss, and some were intravenously fed…However, all were discharged within two days to two weeks having gained weight and none had long-term damage.”
Seem like good news, right? Put on the Def Leopard, because we’re about to start headbanging.
Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #1:
Okay. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but having a 2-week-old newborn in the hospital hooked up to an IV for a week or two isn’t considered serious? And as for long-term effects – these babies were born between 2009-2010. The study is not available online, so I don’t know what the details are in terms of how the researchers followed up with the subjects… but considering studies on breastfeeding and intelligence have tested kids at the age of 8, I think one could fairly say the jury is still out on this sample of 4 and 5-year-old kids. And how were they assessed in terms of long-term effects? Psychological? Emotional? Physical?
With all the focus on mother-child interaction in the first days, and the effect of fatty acids on brain development, the superiority of breastmilk in the first weeks… doesn’t it seem a little ironic that we’re so quick to dismiss a condition which a) separates parents from babies through NICU stays and b) starves/dehydrates a child in those same “fundamental” weeks?
I understand that we’re talking small numbers here – 7 in every 100, 000 is admittedly a reassuring statistic. But while we’re talking about that figure… what exactly does it mean?
Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #2:
First, without access to the study, I can’t tell you if this statistic means 7 in 100,000 of ALL LIVE BIRTHS – meaning EBF, formula-fed and mixed-fed infants, inclusive. The UK has lower breastfeeding rates than many countries, so if this was the number of babies in all live births, it doesn’t mean anything substantial. What we need to know is the number of babies admitted who were exclusively breastfed before we can start making statements about breastfeeding, milk supply, and what needs to happen to avoid this risk.
Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #3:
Even if this study did look only at EBF babies, there are major limitations in what we can fairly assess from the data. We can’t know how many women can adequately produce milk so that their babies aren’t at risk, because most people would supplement before it got to the point of hospitalization. What the researchers did discover is that the babies hospitalized could nearly all breastfeed successfully:
Almost every baby is capable of breastfeeding, Oddie said. “In only a few cases were there special features of the baby that made it likely that there would be a severe feeding problem. [One of the babies, for instance, was found to have a cleft palate.] Normally all babies can get established with breastfeeding with the right support.”
Again, I’m a little confused. If there were only a few cases of this condition, what exactly is a “few” of a few? Of the seven babies hospitalized in a group of 100,000, does that mean one of them had a “special feature” which created a feeding problem? Was it a statistically significant number?
Then, the Deputy Manager of UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative weighed in:
Anne Woods, deputy programme manager for Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI)…said the number of babies who could not feed was negligible and only a very small percentage – about 1% – of women would struggle to make enough milk. “The numbers who breastfeed in this country do not reflect the numbers who could breastfeed if they had effective support,” she said.
Where there are problems, she added, “it fundamentally boils down to the fact that the baby is not attached to the breast effectively. The whole of the baby’s mouth has to make contact and draw the breast tissue into the mouth.”
But because we have a bottle-feeding culture in the UK, she said, some women do not realise this and “try to bottle-feed with their breast”, so the baby takes only the nipple and does not get enough milk.
The other problem is when babies do not feed often enough. After a difficult labour or pain relief, the baby may be sleepy. There is also an expectation she said, that a baby will feed and then sleep.
Ah, right. It’s the mom’s fault. Who cares that this study proves – hell, even suggests – nothing about the true incidence of physiological lactation failure. The researchers are talking about the baby’s ability to feed, not the mother’s ability to produce milk. That doesn’t stop Anne Woods from hurling the 1% (the lowest number bandied about regarding lactation failure, by the way – she could’ve at least given us a break and used the higher end of the oft-cited 1-5%
assumption figure) statistic at moms who’re already feeling like failures for landing their babies in the hospital. And of course, the mom probably can’t be bothered to feed as frequently as needed – not that it’s entirely her fault, since the formula companies have convinced her that her breast is actually…wait for it… a bottle!
Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #4:
I know, I’m being snarky. And I do appreciate that the lead researcher of this study, Sam Oddie, emphasized the need for better breastfeeding management and support. I’m fully on board with that. But I’m also concerned about what Dr. Oddie was saying back in 2009, when he embarked on his study:
Dr Sam Oddie, a consultant in the neonatal unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary, who is leading the study, said: ‘Once we understand the scale of the problem we can work out what to do about it – how to spot it, and how to act on it. But as far as I’m concerned the answer isn’t more formula feeding, but increased support for breastfeeding from the outset in the form of counsellors.” (Marie Claire, 2009).
I don’t disagree with him, necessarily, but going in to a study on hypernatraemia with a strong desire to avoid formula supplementation – even if that ended up being the best course of treatment – implies a certain degree of bias.
One could argue that there’s no harm in a study like this making the news; it will bring attention to those experiencing early breastfeeding problems and perhaps make medical professionals take them more seriously. But as we’ve seen so many times, these studies have a way of creeping into the breastfeeding canon and being misused as “truth” to back up future claims. I can already see Dr. Oddie’s quotes as being taken out of context, being used as “proof” that “all babies can breastfeed” and that the risk of inadequate feeding isn’t all that serious (so there’s never a need to supplement, even if your formula-pushing pediatrician tells you that there is).
Still think I’m overreacting? Here are the headlines from the other two major news sources covering the study:
Would you like me to move over and make a little space for you on the wall? Come on over. Bring some Metallica, and wear a helmet.
Read more about neonatal hypernatraemia:
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.
Lately I’ve been frustrated. Like, mind-numbingly frustrated. It seems that every week there’s a new article on the infant feeding wars, rehashing the same points over and over, with the same battle being waged in the comments section: You’re judgmental. Yeah, well, you’re anti-breastfeeding! No I’m not, and I’m a better parent than you! Oh, really, well, I’m am MD/RN/LC/PhD and I KNOW I’m right, so shut up! You’re a lactofanatic! You’re selfish and misinformed and a threat to breastfeeding moms everywhere! Bloomberg! Hannah Rosin! Bottle! Breast! Bottle! Breast!
Shall I go on?
I’ve been blogging for nearly 3.5 years now, and I’m so damn tired. I’m incredibly grateful and proud of the community which has formed around FFF, but I don’t see anything changing. I want to do more than whine about how unfair the current atmosphere is; I want to change it. I want to make this blog unnecessary, because I’m truly sick of talking this subject to death. And I’m sure you guys are sick of hearing about it. How many times can I pick apart studies which fail to thoroughly consider the most basic notions of correlation and causation? How many ranty essays can I vomit out about the pressure to breastfeed? None of it seems to matter, because nothing changes.
I mean, nothing changes.
I wrote a book, one that took nearly three years of heavy research, interviews, and soul-sucking rewrites, hoping that it would help me reach a larger audience, and get people talking on a more nuanced level about this debate. But no one wants nuance.
And nothing changes.
I sit here at my computer, hiding behind the safety of our little community, preaching to the choir, holding myself up as fearless while I wallow in fear; the fear that people will judge me, criticize me; the fear that I will disappoint you.
And nothing changes.
Recently, an opportunity came up that might allow me to effect change in one tiny arena of this circus of insanity. It would allow me to meet with some other people who are uneasy with the way formula is being vilified. It would give me the ability to spread the message that we need better education and guidance for bottle-feeders. It might give me access to people willing to listen to ideas about tempering the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative to be a little more palatable to those of us who must, or choose to, formula feed.
The problem is that this opportunity necessitates my associating with a formula company. They are the ones with the means to bring me to the table, to have these conversations. It makes sense that they contacted me; they have a vested interest in protecting infant feeding “choice”, and so do I. But theirs is financial, and mine is personal. I’m not naive; I know they aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their hearts.
Formula companies- like all major corporations- are out to make money. Some of the ways they go about this do not bother me – for example, I see no harm in them advertising their product. I view formula as a healthy substitute for breastmilk – certainly not perfect, not without room for improvement (because I always suspect manufactured substances always have room for improvement – that’s just the capitalist in me), and as I explain in Bottled Up, not a competitor to breastmilk. Just another option. Considering the only industry that has major restrictions on advertising is Big Tobacco, to say formula companies shouldn’t be allowed to advertise is to compare them with the manufacturers of cigarettes- a completely unfounded, ridiculous, and irresponsible comparison, in my opinion. I don’t like when they bring breastmilk into the marketing message – lines like “closest to breastmilk” should be left on the cutting room floor- but at the same time, how can we really blame them? If we are spending so much time and effort convincing society that breastmilk is the gold standard, why wouldn’t specific formulas want to be seen as coming closer to matching this liquid gold than their competitors?
But there are other ways that formula companies handle themselves that provoke a disturbing, fundamental mistrust in my gut. They want to increase their sales; therefore, it’s in their best interest if women do not breastfeed. This is a fact that’s impossible to ignore, when we see them sponsoring breastfeeding “help” hotlines and guides. I can’t help siding with breastfeeding advocates on this one: the LAST people who should be giving breastfeeding advice are the folks with a vested interest in having women turn to the alternative.
This is the point in my ongoing internal debate where I start getting all angst-ridden. Formula marketing execs need to take a long, hard look at how they are handling their accounts. They have an incredibly smart, media-savvy audience in this country-not all moms are Little Red Riding Hoods; many of us know there’s a wolf hiding behind that grandmotherly lactation consultant. Even if the breastfeeding information they are doling out is 100% useful, encouraging, and evidence-based, it is not going to be received as such.
What I find so frustrating is that formula companies are so busy trying to market to breastfeeding moms, when they have a willing and ready market base just sitting here, waving our arms to get their attention. Ban The Bags doesn’t want them hawking their wares to mothers attempting to breastfeed? Fine. More for us. Why not urge hospitals to keep the bags on hand, to be distributed only to parents who request them? Or even better, give parents the option of signing up on a website to receive the samples in the mail. Seems like a no-brainer that most moderate people could accept as a compromise.
Likewise, why should formula companies distribute pamphlets on breastfeeding when formula advice is so needed? If you’re going to spend money sending formula samples in the mail, the literature accompanying it should be about formula feeding. Not breastfeeding. Leave that to Medela or Lansinoh.
I have plenty of ideas on how formula companies could better serve us, their true customer base, and perhaps shift the cultural opinion of formula feeding away from a “competitor” to breastmilk and towards a more moderate point of view, where it is merely seen as an option for women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Tough distinction, but worth making. And there’s a hopeful part of me which thinks that maybe, just maybe, the formula companies also want to protect their customer base – even if it is for entirely selfish reasons.The formula companies don’t want their customers feeling ashamed to buy their products; they want us to be proudly bragging about how great our kids did on Enfasimistart. They don’t want us improperly using the stuff and then suing them later.
If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s this: breastfeeding moms have a tough time in this world. But they also have a lot of respected, smart, noble individuals fighting their fight. No one believes that formula feeders need defending, so we are left to our own devices. The only folks who have a vested interested in our well-being is the formula companies, and they haven’t really done us many favors.
I’ve been thinking that maybe I can change that, though. If I can’t make headway with the breastfeeding organizations, maybe I can at least provoke some change in the companies who are making and marketing the products that feed our babies. Maybe if they hear from us – their customers – they can put some of their considerable resources and influences to good use, rather than simply pissing off breastfeeding advocates and giving them more fodder to hate on formula, formula makers, and by association, formula feeders.
This is something I want to do; something that I think could actually provoke change in a positive way for both formula feeding parents and breastfeeding moms – because we don’t have to be at cross purposes. I support infant feeding choice – that means ensuring that breastfeeding and formula feeding are equally protected, and parents are appropriately educated about whatever feeding method is right for them. I don’t see any education or protection for formula feeding parents, and no one is willing to change this. It would be great if UNICEF or the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine wanted to listen to what I have to say, but I’m not waiting by the phone for them to call. I don’t get the impression they’re very interested in what I have to say.
While all of this sounds good in my head, these thoughts are giving me a migraine. I’m well aware that associating with the formula companies opens me up to major criticism. And yet I can’t help think that there is a major difference between being influenced by a formula company, and influencing a formula company. Being influenced by a formula company would mean having them sponsor this blog, or pay me a salary, because then my content would be soiled by bias- whether it be of the financial or subliminal persuasion. We’ve all seen how having ads or sponsors can soil the editorial style of some of our favorite bloggers; I certainly don’t blame them for it, since this blogging thing takes time and a girl’s got to eat. In my case, though, if I don’t have my neutrality, I don’t have sh-t.
But I’m not talking about being influenced – I’m talking about influencing. I’m talking about having them interface with me on MY terms, helping them move in a better direction, and walking away if I feel things are shady. I’m not sure how this is more suspect than a representative of Planned Parenthood meeting with Trojan. The former wants to advocate for safer sex, and knows abstinence is unrealistic; the latter makes condoms; if Trojan can help promote safer sex and sell more condoms due to a halo effect, it’s a win-win for both parties.
I’m opening this up to the community, because your opinions are the only ones I care about. People have been accusing me of being in the pockets of the formula industry since day one; I don’t know if it even matters to them whether I throw molotov cocktails into the lobby of Nestle headquarters, or bathe naked in a vat of Good Start. But I take my responsibility to this community very seriously, and I wouldn’t make a decision like this without your input. Please think about this, and let me know: is it okay to associate with the formula companies on an advocacy level? Or will this destroy my neutrality, even if I vow not to let it?
Because seriously…. something has to change.
My first experience with a baby friendly hospital was far from pleasant….because no one had really showed me how to attach, just pushed and shoved my breast, my nipples became blistered and bloody…As day 3 approached it was clear my son was having a few issues. He was becoming jaundiced, he still hadn’t passed any sort of wee. This was when the contradictory advice began. One told me he was a lazy sucker and that I had to watch for Nutritive sucking, where his whole jaw was moving, all the dummy sucking was not getting him any milk. Another midwife told me that was nonsense and any sucking was getting him milk. One told me my latch was good, another told me it was rubbish. It seemed with every shift change I got another piece of different advice. I was more confused than I had ever been in my life and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. They had me constantly hooked up to the breast pump, hoping to encourage my milk in but I never got even a drop out…he had lost nearly 30% of his body weight in 3 days, they aim for 10% at the most. I felt angry, I had told them my baby was starving. Any time I had asked for formula I was told it would affect my milk supply and refused…I had to sign a form allowing him to have the bottle. He gulped it down and went straight to sleep. The first time really since he had been born. The next morning when with a new midwife when I asked for another formula top up I was given a spiel on how ridiculous it was to have given it too him in the first place and I would destroy any chance of ever having any milk. When my husband asked which formula they recommended if we decided to go that way because he could see how thoroughly overwhelmed I was he was told they don’t recommend formula. Those two bottles allowed his weight to go up enough however to allow us home after another night so we finally got out of there. I left exhausted, nipples absolutely shredded, confused, overwhelmed and violated….Baby friendly maybe, mother friendly most definitely not. - Courtney
“My local hospital is “baby-friendly”… My own opinion of this implementation is that it was distinctly “mother unfriendly” - to the point I’m still traumatized by what went on now and regularly cry myself to sleep over it all. My daughter came prematurely, was sent to NICU, while I was sent to the post-natal ward… I had a leaflet on breastfeeding slung at me, and when I pointed out it was a tad insensitive- I had a premature baby in an incubator not even on the same floor in the hospital as me, and I couldn’t do anything since she wasn’t even WITH me (none of the staff had broached expressing or pumping at this point) – I got snarled at that “breastfeeding is really important you know” and the nurse flounced off…After about a week and a half, when I was truly at the point of crumbling, when we’d made no progress at all with breastfeeding and latching, one wonderful nurse put her neck on the line and broached the taboo (bottles, formula and teats were very much the elephant in the room everyone was too scared to mention) and told me that basically I would be looking at extending our time in hospital by another 2-3 weeks in order to be able to go home breastfeeding… I asked to try her with some of this expressed milk in a bottle to see what she would take… From there she really turned the corner. However because of being “baby friendly” – the bottles, teats and formula were hidden away behind the nurses’ station (very similar to the NYC proposals) – you had to do the walk of shame, akin to being on the Weakest Link, to go and collect them… it was literally a matter of a few days from that first bottle feed to her being able to take her full feed requirements and maintain/gain weight and have her feeding tube removed – the hospital would have let me plod on in ignorance that this was possible to sacrifice my mental health on the altar of their baby friendly status quite happily. The prolonged stressful nature of our hospital stay has left me with an anxiety disorder requiring medication, sleep problems and I cry myself to sleep on many many nights over the trauma we went through – this is after counselling as well. I switched to formula feeding as my supply dwindled and my breast pump motor died in the end.” -F.T.
A colleague said something to me last week that really knocked me on my ass. She asked if I had lost my passion for this blog, and for the cause in general; she told me that FFF “wasn’t what it was” a year ago. I’ve reflected on this for the past 5 days, and I started wondering if maybe I was the Internet equivalent of an aging beauty queen, hanging out at the local cougar bar and wearing pants that were more appropriate for my 14-year-old daughter. It was a scary thought. (And a little too close to home, as I still shop in the Juniors department, on occasion.)
On further reflection though, I don’t think I’m old, or tired, or lacking passion – I’m just a little jaded. I’m jaded because I realize that blogs can only go so far; that the time has come to take FFF to the next level and begin forming concrete advocacy efforts and fighting for real, practical change that can lead to flesh-and-bones support, rather than just the virtual kind.
This advocacy will begin with an endeavor I am calling the Family Friendly Hospital Initiative (FFHI). I originally planned to call it the “Mother-Friendly” initiative since the mothers are the ones physically engaged in breastfeeding, but ultimately chose the name “Family Friendly” to reflect the fact that families are made up of not only babies and mothers, but also biological fathers, adoptive parents, gay and lesbian spouses, and siblings with their own specific needs. We need to approach all types of famiIies in a holistic manner, recognizing that the health, happiness and economic stability of the entire family is vitally important to emotional and physical health of a growing infant and to our society as a whole.
I plan to approach hospitals, local media, and government officials to encourage adoption of the FFHI, a program that can work in conjunction with the BFHI Ten Steps, taking the best parts of that program and clarifying the aspects that could potentially infringe on a woman’s right to choose how to use her body. I am going to fight, tooth and nail, for hospitals to start offering bottle-feeding classes, or if this isn’t a possibility, perhaps giving access to a hotline to connect new moms with trained peer advisers who can walk them through safe formula preparation, outline the best pumping and milk storage practices, offer suggestions to common formula concerns and complaints, and hopefully provide peer support groups which can meet, much like breastfeeding support groups, but for formula-feeding, pumping, tube feeding and combo-feeding mothers.
There is no reason that supporting and promoting breastfeeding has to mean punishing the women who either choose to formula feed, or end up doing so for any number of valid reasons. The Family Friendly Hospital Initiative will promote breastfeeding as the healthiest choice, but will frame it as a truly informed choice, giving concrete, real-world statistics in contexts that any parent can understand, not just the ones with a degree in epidemiology. It will adhere to practices shown to improve breastfeeding rates, but make the ultimate goal a healthy, fed baby and a confident, emotionally healthy mother and/or father. The FFHI will reach out to postpartum mental health professionals and organizations and attempt to make maternal postpartum health a significant priority. It will encourage researchers to engage in studies which will learn from women who are not breastfeeding, rather than dismissing them; studies which will make bottle-feeding (whether it be formula, donated milk, or expressed maternal milk) safer; studies which will help us determine how our societal evolution has affected breastfeeding, and how to merge a woman’s innate desire to feed her child naturally with the reality of an incredibly unnatural world.
Take the good….
“…Every nurse who came to check on us was extremely respectful. They all asked before touching me and gave great advice about how to get him latched and how to take care of myself while breast feeding. Once we were discharged, we received follow up care from community health nurses. They check on everyone by phone, but came to visit us in home after hearing about the number of times my son had been up to feed. They weighed him and provided a lot of encouragement. When the jaundice was getting worse, not better, it was a community health nurse who was also a lactation consultant who said, ‘How do you feel about formula supplementation?’” - Lisa
When I asked my Facebook followers to share their experiences of “baby friendly” hospitals, I was shocked – and not for the reasons you might think. I was expecting tales of shaming, mistreatment, and inferior assistance with the actual mechanics of breastfeeding. But instead, the majority of the stories posted on my Facebook wall were positive. “I went in planning to use formula. I was so nervous,” says Amy. “Every single person was supportive, did not say one single word about it, and several actually expressed relief for me! …They didn’t have much advice on stopping my milk but they tried. My pediatrician seemed thrilled too. I went in ready to defend and they were all SO fantastic.” Natalie reports that the “hospital staff were all very kind. Every time they asked if I was going to try breastfeeding, I would start with my big long explanation, and they’d stop me right away and say ‘it’s your choice, you don’t need to explain’”. A few readers had given birth in both baby-friendly establishments and hospitals that hadn’t adopted the initiative, and they gave much higher marks to the baby-friendly ones. Allowing babies to room in, experience skin-to-skin immediately after birth, and having more lactation consultants or breastfeeding-educated nurses on staff are changes most new mothers would applaud. Obviously, there are elements to the baby-friendly program that should be commended and implemented worldwide.
…But Leave the Bad
I delivered at a baby-friendly hospital. I had intended on giving breastfeeding a try but was not sure I wanted to do it long term…When I delivered, a nurse helped me initiate breastfeeding…He was not latching well, which I assumed the LC would have told me. I now found out that it is against their policy to use prosthetics (shield), which would most likely have saved our nursing relationship and helped my sleepy baby latch… They checked his bili levels and they were sky high. I told the night nurse she could feed him formula and I was fine with that. She fed him 25ml through a syringe. The next morning I was told the machine used to check the levels was malfunctioning and he was actually fine. The LC berated me for allowing my baby formula. After our release he became too tired to latch and would scream. The pediatrician told me I should supplement. I gave him a bottle, and he refused to nurse. By the next day, he had gained 4oz and changed color. I stopped after that for my own sanity and recovery. My experience wasn’t horrible at the hospital, but when I was looked down upon for allowing him formula I felt as though it wasn’t so much about me making a decision I thought was best, but them not being able to check off that ‘exclusively BF’ checkbox.” -Sara
“Because of my problems with (my first child) I was leaning towards formula but still wanted to attempt the breast or at least get the colostrom benefits. When the lactation consultant came in, she was rude. So rude. I explained my troubles with my first son- where she informed me that the problems I experienced were impossible, she isn’t there to convince me to breastfeed, and I am sabotaging my efforts with son 2. By the time she left the room, I was crying. Literally crying. I told the nurse to get my son a bottle of formula so I would never need to see that woman again. Turns out son 2 tongue sat back in his mouth a little too far and needed a preemie bottle nipple. LC might have caught that and offered me a shield or something if she hadn’t been there to just berate the hell out of me. - Betsy
Despite the numerous positive experiences voiced in this small sample, adopting procedures which focus on an end goal (having most babies exclusively breastfed upon discharge from the hospital) can lead some care providers to fall prey to human tendencies of fear, selfishness, and bias. It is evident that so much depends on the individual care providers and administrators of each hospital; the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) is based on the organization’s Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, which are meant to “promote, protect, and support breastfeeding”. Yet, the program is often simultaneously promoted as a way to improve maternity care in the United States, to bring hospital birthing to a more personalized, less sterile level. And while these two goals might seem to work in tandem, there’s too much left to interpretation in the Ten Steps to ensure that they really do. In fact, in some cases, it seems that the emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding for the good of the babies is subjugating the needs, autonomy, responsibility, rights and desires of the mothers.
Still, I do believe that things must change in our hospital system so that women will be supported in their efforts to breastfeed. New mothers shouldn’t be sabotaged or bullied, no matter if the substance in question is formula or breastmilk. And the early days of breastfeeding are incredibly vital – both physically and emotionally. I simply want to make sure that women are supported in both the former and the latter respects.
Engage the professionals
“My son was born in a “baby-friendly” hospital. In theory, it’s all very good and helpful, but I feel the nurses need to be given a reminder about personal boundaries and coherent advice. I was pretty upset that they wouldn’t let my husband hold him after the birth and that they manhandled my breasts (without asking first) to try to painfully extract some colostrum (which I didn’t have at all) because my son apparently needed to have some *right now*. I was exhausted and just wanted to be left alone. I wanted my husband to take the baby so I could sleep. There was a lot of manhandling and nipple-pinching during the next feeding attempts, which was very painful and disturbing…Also, my son slept for most of his 48-hours hospital stay. I went to the nurses station to ask them if I should wake him to feed him and I was told “no”, but when I was discharged, a nurse scolded me for not attempting to nurse every 3 hours. I felt confused and misdirected. I was happy to leave!” -Roxane
I believe that most people go into the medical field – a care profession – to help others. We cannot ask nurses and physicians – professionals who carry the credo do no harm close to their hearts – to subjugate the needs of one patient for that of another. We should be asking these professionals to work with us to improve infant feeding practices, rather than demanding they behave in certain ways (ways that may be in direct conflict to their instincts as caregivers) in order to meet government goals. Therefore, I hope that medical professionals – especially maternity care specialists – will join me in urging the adoption of this initiative. Perhaps it will also be more palatable to hospitals who have shied away from becoming baby-friendly; if the goal is to end practices which sabotage breastfeeding, it shouldn’t matter whether we do it via WHO/UNICEF-endorsed methods or our own modified American version.
As I’ve been researching the BFHI, another realization I’ve had is that despite all intentions, women are still being given atrocious advice in baby-friendly hospitals- advice that would make most experienced LC’s cringe. A friend recently gave birth at a Kaiser hospital here in California, one that prides itself on being Baby Friendly. She told me the most curious tale of how, when her newborn didn’t latch right away (and I’m talking like 3 minutes into the first skin-to-skin, right after the cord had been cut), a nurse dribbled formula all over my friend’s chest, apparently to encourage the baby to latch. Considering step 6 of the BFHI is “Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated” and my friend’s baby was born perfectly healthy, I have no flipping idea why this would have been done.
I suspect that when the focus is solely on having women leave the hospital breastfeeding exclusively, rather than on encouraging long-lasting, healthy, happy breastfeeding dyads, bizarre and contradictory actions will continue to occur. By talking with healthcare professionals rather than treating them as the enemy, or assuming they are all pawns for the formula industry, we can hopefully come up with better protocols that lead to better outcomes overall.
Encourage individualized patient care
“My baby latched perfectly and all was great. Except that I hated it. No matter what the hospital does, I believe women will quit breastfeeding for all kinds of reasons. I hate calling it “succeeding” at breastfeeding because I think success is determined by a happy healthy baby and mom, which isn’t always breastfeeding.” - Erin
“I have 2 sons, now 2 and 4. I also have PCOS and hypoplastic breasts. I tried to breastfeed my first, didn’t work. Didn’t even try with the second (with the blessing of the same LC who was at the same hospital and remembered me! Took one look at me and said, “nope, don’t bother.”). By the time I had my 2nd child, the hospital had become “breast friendly”, in their words. So they were not giving away the formula bags and samples any longer. Nurses told me that they actually had to THROW THEM AWAY. Since I had been expecting these items, I was shocked to hear this. When the director of nursing stopped by to take a little survey on my stay, I really let her have it. “But we’re BREAST FRIENDLY” she kept repeating. My response? ’Well guess what honey, my breasts aren’t very friendly, and they don’t make milk’”.-Rebecca
I actually believe that most of the 10 Steps outlined on the BFHI website are perfect for encouraging breastfeeding, and seem to reflect the research that has been published on this issue. But I think that there is a fundamental flaw in the program: it does not give sufficient attention to the needs of bottle-feeding parents. Mothers have different birth experiences, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, different emotional makeups, different physical impediments. Mothers are different. Treating all American mothers as one homogeneous, uniformly-lactating group is a recipe for disaster. There’s a movement afoot to change the face of maternity care in this country – homebirths, or hospital births assisted by doulas or performed by midwives are becoming more popular. We seem to be having two parallel conversations – one that says “treat me like an individual, not as a medical case to be managed” when it comes to birth, and one that begs for overly-monitored, medicalized, one-size-fits-all treatment when it comes to breastfeeding.
There is no reason we can’t follow most of the BFHI steps, and still provide resources, emotionally neutral education, and equal support for those who opt to combo feed or formula feed.
Education, Not Indoctrination
“No discussion of challenges in our BFing class, just all the joys and benefits. Frankly, I think it’s much better to discuss potential problems even if they affect only 10% or so of mother-baby pairs. Knowledge is power, and you aren’t blindsided by pressure or bullying or confusion either way in the days immediately after birth if you know what to expect. I seriously don’t understand why anyone would think it wasn’t important to discuss potential problems. It would be so much better for getting people to know when to get help.” -Sumita
“In fairness breast feeding wasn’t really covered either – it was more here are the benefits this is why you should – and this is briefly how it’s done- we will show you when you have your baby. Formula wasn’t even mentioned at all. - Kate
I took a breast feeding class at the baby friendly hospital I have birth in. They never talked about any problems that could come up. Only the benefits and good things about breast feeding. I spoke to a nurse while I was in the hospital and asked her how come I wasn’t told about flat nipples, latching issues and such and she said that they don’t discuss negative things in the breast feeding class so that women aren’t discouraged. In my case it would have been very helpful to know about issues like that because it would have avoided me getting depressed about not being able to breast feed my premature baby.” -Rosella
“We are set up for failure and every real life mom I know knows it. SO many women I talk to NOW commiserate with how hard it can be, but all the literature, all the websites give such an opposite impression. Like, why WOULDN’T you breastfeed if its beautiful, bonding and almost everyone can do it? If everything they said was true, everyone WOULD breastfeed. But its not true for everyone.“- Rachel
“The number of mistakes I made formula feeding my first born because of the lack of info frightens the hell out of me to this day. I called a nurse hotline once to ask some questions and got a lecture about how I should try to re-induce lactation.” - Mina
Regardless of what happens in the 48 hours after delivery, the education parents are receiving about infant feeding is downright embarrassing. Classes drill the importance of breastfeeding into our heads without giving us much practical information on how to actually nurse; this is somewhat understandable as it’s the kind of thing you can’t really learn without doing. However, a brief acknowledgment of some of the more common complications would be an easy thing to add to prenatal curricula - latching issues, flat or inverted nipples, tongue ties, commonly used drugs that may be contraindicated, health conditions such as diabetes or PCOS which could potentially complicate breastfeeding – and doing so would prevent many women from feeling like failures when breastfeeding doesn’t come easily. Considering the emphasis on avoiding nipple confusion and establishing milk supply in the first few weeks which permeates the canon of breastfeeding advocacy literature, it seems logical that we should do whatever we can to ensure that women are not blindsided by these issues – forewarned, they could come up with a solid plan with a lactation professional which could prevent actions made in moments of confusion and panic.
Additionally, the lack of education about formula feeding is a travesty. I have written about this many times before, but I will reiterate: if only 36% of American mothers are breastfeeding exclusively at 3 months, that means a majority of babies are being fed formula. It is IMPERATIVE that they are properly supported in doing so. Ignoring the fact that formula is a reality in the lives of many parents doesn’t just punish the parents- it affects the babies. True, formula feeding isn’t brain surgery – but it could be argued that breastfeeding is an instinctual act for humans. Formula feeding? There’s nothing instinctual about it. There is a huge margin for error. I personally suspect that many of the subtle health disparities we see in the aggregate between formula fed and breastfed babies are due to avoidable and common mistakes in formula preparation and selection. Most parents have no idea what the difference is between a “sensitive”, “hypoallergenic”, or “lactose-free” formula. They don’t know that the angle of the bottle, the flow of the nipple, and the type of formula (powdered, liquid, concentrated) could affect their baby’s digestive system. They don’t know what water to use, how often they really have to sterilize bottles, or what formula to choose. They must rely on friends and the internet for advice about something that should be – unlike breastfeeding – a regimented and meticulous process (sadly, it seems our society has this flipped. Breastfeeding is treated like brain surgery, and formula feeding is seen as something we should inherently know how to do…). Medical professionals may be used to the “formula feeding model” for things like weight gain and feeding schedules, but even this is more true of the “old guard” (those who have been practicing for a long while, before breastfeeding’s resurgence) and these same folks might not be aware that there’s been research and new thought on the bottle-feeding front since they got out of med school in 1963.
I propose that breastfeeding education be altered to reflect some of the realities of breastfeeding – common challenges, medications, diet, and pumping – the same things discussed on KellyMom, Mothering.com, and The Bump. I also want to see hospitals offering bottle-feeding classes and resources once a mother has voiced a desire to either supplement or completely formula feed.
The “Parent-Friendly” Manifesto
I am not sure what form this “initiative” will take just yet, but I am hoping that FFFs across the country will join me in advocating for positive change. It is healthy and necessary to mourn the loss of breastfeeding, or rage against the current atmosphere of shaming and belittling formula feeding moms – but we can turn that anger and grief into positive change. I know we can. Let’s work on this, together, so that no new moms have to go through what we have gone through. Let’s make it so FFF Fridays become obsolete, because there will be so few people who feel bullied, abused, or let down by their experiences. Let’s make my friend’s comment a reality – make it so that I have lost my passion, because there will be nothing left to get fired up about.
Who’s with me?