parent opinion

OPINION: The conversation we don't seem to be allowed to have about formula feeding.

We know breast milk is the crème de la crème source of nutrition for babies; we are well aware.

In fact, what I hear from new parents the most is how surprised they are at how much of a struggle breastfeeding can be when we are consistently told that it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world.

From the moment you see those lines on the pregnancy test, you picture yourself with a baby on your breast, suckling happily.

It's an image that's been fed to us through books, movies and social media, portraying the idyllic bonding experience between mother and child. But no matter how badly you want it, sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Watch: The bottle vs. breastfeeding debate. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

I ordered countless breastfeeding-friendly bras and clothes, searched high and low for shirts with buttons.

I spent a few hundred dollars on a breastfeeding course in addition to the parenting course offered by the hospital.

I desperately wanted to breastfeed, and after it didn’t work the first time, I was devastated. No amount of preparation, education, or desire helped me breastfeed my first or my second baby.


It just didn’t happen for me and it’s something I still experience real grief over; an experience I will never get to have.

Right now the Australian Government is surveying individuals and industry voices to review its Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas: Manufacturers and Importers (MAIF) Agreement.

It’s a voluntary agreement entered into by companies that manufacture and distribute infant formula, where they agree not to advertise ‘breast milk substitutes’ to the public.

This means medical professionals, media bodies and healthcare staff cannot recommend formula.

There are some health and regulatory bodies that would have you believe that the marketing of infant formula is the reason breastfeeding rates are on the decline – despite the fact that 96 per cent of mothers initiate breastfeeding when their babies are born. 

Of course, people’s choices about how they feed their babies often generate heated discussions.

What any new parent knows is that navigating these conversations is a minefield. There can be a particular type of shame associated with deciding to feed your baby formula. One that is not only reinforced by social media, the health industry and likely the majority of your female relatives, but also regulated.

The WHO recommends that you pump and use bottles, or use donor milk, before accessing any infant formula.

If you’ve ever experienced using a breast pump, you’ll know there is nothing more soul-destroying than being attached to a machine rather than your baby.


It is also exceedingly difficult and expensive to access donor milk. For the most part, the milk that is provided to an official milk bank, where donors are screened for viruses/medical conditions, is pasteurised and stored safely and then passed on to neonatal intensive care units for sick premature babies. 

There are ways to access donor milk informally, through social networks, but there are risks involved with this given there aren’t any testing processes in place to make sure the milk is safe.

Before the widespread use of formula, mothers who could not breastfeed often relied on wet nurses. If you couldn’t afford one, you would turn to homemade substitutes, such as cow's milk or condensed milk, which were often not nutritionally adequate for babies and could lead to illness and death.

In some cases, babies were sent to live with relatives or even strangers who could breastfeed them. It was not until the late 1950s and early 1960s that infant formula became widely available and affordable in Australia, providing a safer and more reliable alternative for mothers who were unable or chose not to breastfeed.

Yes, formula is expensive – $20-35 a tin – yet to those who suggest breastfeeding is free, I’d like to introduce them to the $150-per-hour private lactation consultant I engaged to try to get me to breastfeed successfully.

The message we’re receiving from health services, government policies and the WHO guidelines is that you must give your baby breastmilk, no matter the cost – to you, your mental health, or your family.


Warning labels on tins of formula aren’t going to magically change the breastfeeding rates. 

All they do is kick a parent while they are already down. 

Refusing to be flexible or to acknowledge that individual circumstances vary doesn’t work. Wouldn’t our efforts be better put towards the pursuit of supporting families to make the best decision for themselves? Or providing real funding into early childhood policies?

I’m not suggesting formula manufacturers should be allowed to advertise formula – I understand the complications this would cause and it’s important that parents are protected.

But this review is happening, for the first time in 10 years, parents can now weigh in. The consultation period is open until Friday and the biggest voices will be heard – the Department of Health and other government bodies, the Australian Breastfeeding Association... And given there isn’t a 'Formula-Feeding Parents Society', unless we complete the MAIF Review survey, how will the real experiences and challenges faced by these families be heard?

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

Did you know we have a whole family-focused community you can join on Facebook for more discussions like this? Join the Mamamia Family Facebook group and follow Mamamia Family on Instagram and tell us what #parentinglookslike for you!

Feature Image: Getty.

Calling all internet users! Take our survey now and go in the running to win a $100 gift voucher!