I’m incredibly thankful that someone in the field of public health is taking a stand on how we ignore the reality of formula use, and I really hope others will follow. We need decision-makers and influencers – physicians, scientists, public health professionals, nurses, politicians, hospital administrators – to start looking more closely at these issues, and to speak up when they see flaws in the current system. It’s the only way true change can happen.
A public health perspective on formula use and breastfeeding advocacy:
What we don’t say matters
by Hillary Kuzdeba, MPH
In the United States, the majority of babies will receive formula at some point during their first year. Despite what we may personally believe about the importance of breastfeeding, it is critical that medical and public health professionals keep this fact in mind when we design infant feeding educational initiatives for families. When we fail to discuss formula with families, or worse, when we purposefully withhold information on formula from them, we are doing families and infants a great disservice.
Today, most of the breastfeeding advocacy programs implemented in hospitals, birth centers, and OBGYN/midwifery practices utilize a two pronged approach to encourage breastfeeding. The first method, which is the active promotion of breastfeeding, is immediately apparent. Women are empowered to breastfeed through intensive educational materials, classes, consultations, and support groups. The second method is less noticeable, but important nonetheless. Here, strategic obstacles deter women from formula feeding. The obstacles include the reorientation of discussions about formula back towards the “breast is best” message, limiting access to formula during hospitalization, and generally withholding any information on formula lest it “encourage” the family to use it. Used in tandem, both methods create an environment where breastfeeding is presented as the only healthy feeding option. This is why pro-breastfeeding institutions rarely disseminate any information on formula feeding, except to mention that it is suboptimal. In these environments, families will find a myriad of resources on lactation, breastfeeding positions, latching, pumping, and other breastfeeding topics. Meanwhile, practical guides discussing formula selection, appropriate mixing, safe storage, and feeding have been almost completely eliminated.
The first method employed by these programs is wonderful. Most of us agree wholeheartedly that women who want to breastfeed should receive extensive support. I did, and I am so thankful for the resources that helped me breastfeed for as long as I did. But it is the second part of the advocacy approach that worries me, both as a public health professional and a mother. The strategy of withholding health information from patients and families, out of a misguided fear that more information might encourage an undesired behavior, has long been debunked by the scientific community as ineffective and potentially harmful. And yet we continue to implement this strategy in regards to formula feeding.
Some public health researchers, advocates, and other parties may balk at this statement. They may point to evidence suggesting that placing obstacles in the path of a decision can “nudge” individuals towards a different choice. That may be true in specific instances, such as smoking or alcohol use, where the undesired behavior is recreational, unnecessary, addictive, and downright harmful. But infants must eat, formula is a proven healthy option, and breastfeeding can be very challenging for numerous physical, psychological, and social reasons. Most women in the US initiate breastfeeding. So when they do use formula, it is usually a conscious decision for reasons outside of personal preference. Withholding information from these women does not “nudge” them towards breastfeeding. A lack of knowledge about formula does not make extreme nipple pain disappear, or milk flow. It does not change a baby’s mouth structure, or eliminate a working mom’s 12 hour shift. All it does is create the impression that a parent has no option other than breastfeeding.
How does this strategy really play out?
- When a parent who is aware of the benefits of breastfeeding still wants to talk formula, twisting the conversation into another discussion of how “breast is best” is not education – it’s intimidation. This behavior alienates and stigmatizes her, while simultaneously undermining her intelligence and personal authority. It is a form of intellectual bullying, and it delays the provision of requested education on formula feeding. When we use this approach, the message we are sending is clear: “You must not be aware that formula is a poor choice. Let me reeducate you because you clearly aren’t getting it. Maybe now you’ll come to the right decision.”
- If a woman is really struggling to breastfeed and we oppose her when she requests formula, we create a power struggle with a vulnerable parent who is just trying to feed her child. This undermines her trust in us and causes anxiety. She may begin to question whether we really care about her and her infant. This can be devastating for our relationship with poor women, minorities, or other groups who already have reason to be suspicious of the medical establishment or government due to past medical and scientific abuses.
- When we send new parents home with absolutely no education on even the basics of formula feeding like appropriate bottle cleaning and safe storage, we are purposefully withholding critical safety information that could potentially result in harm to an infant. Even parents who appear committed to exclusive breastfeeding should still be educated on these subjects given that most will end up using formula at some point. Assuming they won’t need this information is wishful thinking.
Worst of all, when we create an environment that strongly implies that we are against formula, we accidentally send the message that breastfeeding should be prioritized above all else, including the health of mother and baby. In this environment, our silence on formula use speaks volumes. It overexaggerates the risks of not breastfeeding to the point where mothers may actually endanger themselves and their babies in a desperate effort to avoid the dreaded F word. No mother should be so hesitant to give her child a bottle that the baby ends up hospitalized for extreme dehydration or malnutrition. No mother should be so afraid of formula that she spirals into depression over her inability to breastfeed. And no mother should be led to believe that formula is so risky that she is willing to turn to unscreened, unregulated human milk from an anonymous stranger on the internet to feed her child. And yet, this is happening every day across the US.
Educating families on safe formula selection, preparation, feeding and storage in no way undermines breastfeeding. If a mother is committed to exclusive breastfeeding, providing her with an extra handout on formula use is not going to change her mind. But including that same information can make a world of difference to a family who finds themselves in need of formula. When we include formula in our discussions, our classes, and our educational materials, we create a safe space that shows parents we are on their side – regardless of how they feed their baby. I think that is a strategy we can all get behind.
Hillary Kuzdeba holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a focus on social behavioral science, health promotion, and women’s health. Over the last few years, she served as the program coordinator for a large nursing research group at a renowned Children’s Hospital. Today, she spends her days at home taking care of her beautiful, formula-fed daughter.