‘Baby Formula is a little bit like AIDS’

The last time I wrote about breast and formula feeding I had a ten-week old baby who, at that stage, had been formula-fed for about a month.  I was tired, emotional and defensive.  I’d wanted to breastfeed my son the way I’d fed my first daughter, until she’d weaned herself happily at just over twelve months.  

That said, I was determined to avoid the situation I’d faced with my second baby, who I near-starved in a desperate attempt to continue feeding with what turned out to be a hopelessly inadequate supply.   By the time the paediatrician ‘rescued’ us when she was seven months old, and despite every supply-boosting trick in the book, she was dangerously underweight and lethargic.  Even with her at risk of organ damage, I was still being strongly discouraged at the local clinics from complementing our near-empty breastfeeds with formula. 

It was a slippery slope from there into post-natal depression.  Ironically, the guilt came not from failing to breastfeed, but from failing to stop breastfeeding earlier – in her best interests.

So, when my son came along, ten years later, I tackled it differently.   My intention going into the hospital was to feed my baby.  Full stop.  I would breastfeed if possible, but not at any cost – either to his physical or my emotional wellbeing. 

I’d have loved a ‘last baby’ breastfeeding fairytale, but it wasn’t to be.  When he wouldn’t latch on, no matter how many ways we approached it over the first six weeks, I decided to stop expressing and move to formula.  Two experienced lactation consultants agreed that there are some kids who simply do not get it – even without a tongue-tie – and he’s one of them.  

Having been down the formula-feeding path before, I knew it would be okay.  I had two healthy, energetic tweens under my wing and no-one could pick which had been breastfed.   

When you dearly want to feed a baby and can’t, you can be plunged into a grieving process.  Grief, dressed up as guilt. An aspect of motherhood that you valued highly is wrenched from you by circumstances beyond your control. 

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Mums who are struggling with this grief need compassion and support – not judgement.  Which brings me to the weekend’s report about an Australian Breastfeeding Association class, where it is alleged that participants were told that "Formula is a little bit like AIDS. Nobody actually dies from AIDS; what happens is AIDS destroys your immune system and then you just die of anything and that's what happens with formula. It provides no antibodies.  Every 30 seconds a baby dies from infections due to a lack of breastfeeding and the use of bottles, artificial milks and other risky products. Every 30 seconds."

The breastfeeding counsellor who made the comments has been temporarily suspended by the Association while they investigate the complaints, and the Association has stressed today that this information is not standard in their education programs.  Nevertheless, the counsellor is named in the Association’s annual report for taking the highest number of calls to its hotline, and we can only wonder at the nature and impact of those conversations.

When I hear stories like this, or see Facebook arguments between breast- and formula-feeding mums, or overhear conversations in parents’ rooms that make things difficult for struggling families, I just feel tired.

Breast is best, except when it’s second-best. Support mums to breastfeed if they want to and can, or support them to make different choices that provide for maximum infant health and maternal joy, because that’s where the parenting gold lies.  

Emma Grey is the author of Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum (Lothian, 2005) and director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss. She writes on motherhood, work and relationships on her blog and her vampire-free teen fiction trilogy is currently with a publisher.

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