Scientific information overwhelming shows that for optimal health, I should eat a balanced, portion-controlled diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If I choose to live on overly processed fast foods instead, I am making a less-than-ideal choice and will suffer the consequences. When we make the choice as mothers to use a convenience food like infant formula instead of nutrionally perfect breastmilk, we’re choosing ketchup over fresh tomatoes or that little bit of shredded lettuce on a fast food burger over a fresh salad. Even if you could match nutrient for nutrient, it wouldn’t be quite the same as a home-cooked meal. I sometimes choose convenience over health and drive through the fast-food pick-up line. But I readily admit that in doing so, I’ve not made the very best choice for myself or my family. It doesn’t make me a bad mother, any more than another mom, reaching for the formula because she must return to the office, is a bad mother. We’re both good mothers doing the best that we can. However, it’s time to stop pretending that breastfeeding versus formula is a choice between two equally beneficial things for our children. The Surgeon General’s report clearly states, “Breast milk is uniquely suited to the human infant’s nutritional needs and is a live substance with unparalleled immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that protect against a host of illnesses and diseases for both mothers and children.”
It’s encouraging that perhaps with the Surgeon General’s Call to Action, along with the longstanding efforts of LLLI and others advocating for mothers and children, parents will understand that infant formula is not equal to breastmilk. The report acknowledges the societal obstacles that have influenced why less than half of babies are breastfed past six months of age, while the American Academy of Pediatrics and several other public health organizations recommend breastfeeding for at least a year. It mentions the reality that many women must return to full-time work outside the home, often feeling that they could not pump at the workplace. It notes the powerful pull that infant formula marketing has had on health care providers and the way they have, perhaps innocently, promoted formula to new mothers. Remember those free bags the formula companies distribute via the hospital, filled with goodies? The report even mentions how breastmilk banks could be especially beneficial for newborns who might not have access to their own mothers’ milk. It makes suggestions for better support of breastfeeding mothers. I wonder if better public education about this subject is enough, or if women need the strength of something like the more extensive paid maternity leave that other developed countries have?
Of course, every woman should consult her own health care providers and find out what’s best for her newborn’s specific needs. I realize that, as with anything, there may be exceptions, and your doctor can discuss with you specific instances when you may not be able to breastfeed. However, a lack of education and support is typically the real obstacle. A new mother who hasn’t attended a class on breastfeeding or been mentored prior to childbirth may feel too overwhelmed when the baby arrives, unless she has extensive help from a lactation consultant at the hospital. The Surgeon General’s report mentions that while a healthy, full-term newborn needs nothing besides breastmilk, a federal study showed that nearly half of newborns were being supplemented with formula in the hospital. At home, while the recommendation is for exclusively feeding breastmilk for approximately six months, the report notes that many mothers think they’re doing a good thing by continuing with supplemental formula.
As wonderful as the nurses were in the hospital when my two children were born, under fairly normal childbirth circumstances, I remember being offered formula at least once. It was necessary to be clear about my family’s choice. I am thankful that I’ve been able to breastfeed both of my children, and longer than the minimum recommendation of a year. On a couple of occasions when my toddler needed care for upper respiratory infections, the medical providers were quick to point out that breastfeeding was giving her a definite advantage in fighing off the illnesses. I’ve been able to be a stay-at-home mom with a supportive husband and minimal, flexible office hours since becoming a mother. Whether your circumstances make it easy or more difficult to breastfeed, I hope that you are finding the support that you and your baby deserve. In addition to whatever educational resources that your doctor provides, I recommend the classic resource The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International.