If formula was made to be available only by prescription then breastfeeding rates would increase and the formula industry would “shrink like an unmilked breast“. That’s according to Erik Assadourian, who wrote an article in the Guardian arguing that
Baby formula has no place in the sustainable future
He is calling for ‘a global treaty’ to ‘phase out’ this ‘unneeded product’, modelled on the treaty used to ban tobacco (yes tobacco…)
Assadourian is Transforming Cultures project director at the Worldwatch Institute and as part of this new ‘treaty’ he calls for a ban of formula advertising and product placement and puts forward the idea to:
make formula a prescription-only product, making formula accessible only as a food of last resort.
Assadourian is assuming that the decision not to breastfeed or to mix feed or switch to formula, is a simple one. That it is one affected by the fact that there are shelves of formula in the supermarket easily available for us to go and buy. The truth is a bit more complex than that.
‘Breast is best’ but let’s clarify
Assadourian shares a compelling projection to show just how important breastfeeding is:
Even today, the WHO finds that if all of the world’s children were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, as opposed to just the current 35%, 1.5 million fewer children under the age of five would die each year.
This quote is correct and is made by Dr Elizabeth Mason of the WHO. However this projection about infant deaths refers mostly to infants in developing countries and the risk of malnutrition and infection that they face if they are not breastfed.
Factors such as inappropriate milk substitutes, unsanitary bottles, and unclean water, all pose a serious risk to infant health. It can be a significant health benefit to newborns in developing countries for their mothers to breastfeed and breastfeed exclusively.
Save the Children makes a similar projection but states things more clearly:
Save the Children estimates that 830,000 infant deaths in developing countries could be prevented if every baby were given breast milk, and only breast milk, in the first hour.
The comparison between the benefits of formula milk and breast milk in young babies of developed countries is a very different one. And this is an important distinction to make when discussing the benefits of breastfeeding.
Assadourian also refers to studies done comparing breastfeeding and formula feeding in developed countries. These studies associate breastfed infants with lower incidences of a number of diseases later in life. Although the studies do mention that there is no causal link between the two, they provide evidence that for babies breast is indeed best.
But even with this in mind, is this whole picture when it comes to breastfeeding?
A woman’s choice
Breastfeeding involves a big commitment from mothers, and from their bodies.
20% of mums in the UK choose not to breastfeed. Should they not be allowed to make this choice for themselves and for their bodies?
After all, it’s their bodies and their babies.
Breastfeeding is natural but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy
80% of UK mothers (a vast majority) choose to breastfeed when their babies are born.
The figures reveal that this number tails off significantly after 2 weeks. A trend which implies that many mums do struggle to breastfeed.
A few of the many common problems mothers face are:
- Problems getting baby to latch
- Recurrent mastitis
- Tongue-tie in babies which can lead to feeding difficulties
- Postnatal depression or struggles with other conditions
- Low milk production sometimes due to tiredness and stress
The fact is, it does not go seamlessly for the majority of mothers.
For the mums that try to breastfeed but encounter problems, they are then faced with an entirely different issue. That of feeling miserable and ‘like a failure’. And yet so many feel an ‘unrealistic pressure’ to battle on.
Assadourian is not suggesting that formula should be banned altogether but by suggesting it could be made prescription only, formula would be much harder to get hold of.
For new mothers, having to go and ask a professional doctor for a prescription, is likely to increase the feelings of shame and judgement that they are often already feeling if they have to use formula.
Is breastmilk ‘available on demand’?
Even when mums find breastfeeding easy, they can still face challenges along the way. Different mothers produce different milk of different amounts and different quantities.
If a mum goes through bereavement, for example, her milk supply can stop completely. If mums notice their milk supply dwindling is her baby supposed to go without sufficient food for a few days, while she sorts out a prescription?
How many babies would suffer more severe and direct threats to their health if they were to be left with insufficient food for a period of time before formula could be provided?
Babies need to be fed
Even now, with formula freely available, some babies go hungry because they are not getting the milk they need. If they become severely dehydrated they can even die.
Like in the tragic case of Landon Johnson who died just days after birth from a cardiac arrest caused by dehydration. His heartbroken mum, Jillian, spoke out to make other mums aware of the dangers. She believes that if she had fed her son just one bottle he might be alive today.
The doctors told her to:
Just keep feeding him. Just keep him on the breast. You’ve got a great latch. You’re doing fine.
Believing that this was normal, and that she must breastfeed exclusively she carried on trying to breastfeed.
Speaking to The Washington Post , Jillian’s message is clear:
I want people to stop shaming each other. Regardless of how you feed your baby, just make sure they’re fed. It’s plain and simple.
Is breastfeeding really ‘free’?
Assadourian goes on to state that breast milk is
free and available to nearly all mothers (and breast milk donations or prescription-formula available to the small percentage of those that cannot produce milk).
If mums formula feed, he says,
families are spending hundreds of dollars on an inferior privatised product instead of one that the body freely provides.
He’s right, of course. Mum’s bodies do make breast milk. They don’t have to pay for this to happen. But that does not mean that it’s ‘free.’
A viral tweet just last week (January 2019) challenges this idea that breast milk is free. History professor Kera Lovell tweeted:
Her tweet was liked by almost 14,000 people and was met with a flurry of replies. Mums were blown away with just how many hours the average mother spends breastfeeding and how it is only free if we don’t put any value on this time.
Battling on at the cost of mums’ mental health
Steph, 31, from Leeds, describes feeling ‘trapped’ by her experience of trying to persevere and breast feed her son, when she was struggling. She says:
(My son) became harder and harder to feed…Health visitors and doctors encouraged me to keep going…until I reached breaking point. My mental health had deteriorated without me realising because I was so stubborn. I finally gave in and stopped because my body couldn’t hack it any longer. Once I switched to formula, my son was finally happy because he seemed, for the first time, to be satisfied with a feed.
For the many mums, like Steph who struggle, formula is not an ‘unneeded product’ and using it only as a ‘last resort’ takes its toll on their mental well being.
At the end of the day what should matter most is not whether mums breast or bottle feed ,but that all new mums have a choice to do what is right for them and for their babies – with support and solidarity rather than anything that leaves them with a feeling of shame or stigma.
But we do agree on one thing
Assadourian states that as part of his treaty, all mums should be given paid maternity leave and breastfeeding assistance in hospitals.
So many new mothers give birth and are swiftly put under intense pressure to breastfeed, without any preparation or information on how to actually make breastfeeding work. Often they get little if any support on how to overcome the particular breastfeeding problems that they will face.
More time, information and support for mothers that choose to breastfeed so that they have a greater chance of successful breastfeeding, would be very welcome and long overdue. We would just also like to see some support and acceptance for those that make the decision not to.
- “She listened to her doctors — and her baby died. Now she’s warning others about breast-feeding.” Lindsey Bever, Washington Post.
- “If I had given him just one bottle, he would still be alive.” By Jillian Johnson, Fed is Best.
- “What Decreases Breast Milk Supply”, By Donna Murray. Very Well Family
- “‘An unrealistic pressure’: mothers on what it’s like to breastfeed”, The Guardian
- Kera Lovell, Twitter.com
- “Three quarters of new mums in the UK struggle with breastfeeding”, The Telegraph
- “Statistics reveal England’s low breastfeeding rates”, The Royal College of Midwives
- “Baby formula has no place in a sustainable future”, Erik Assadourian, The Guardian
- “Let’s face it: formula-fed babies sleep better”, Amy Kiefer, Expecting Science
- Similar web, theguardian.com
- “‘Superfood for babies’ How overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives.” Save the Children.