August 8th, 2012

Move over lactation consultant, I want a formula consultant

baby formula

This post also appears in the Huffington Post Parents section. Follow Stacie on The Huffington Post to read all of her posts there.

One Hungry Mama is about finding the joy in feeding your family. Mostly, that comes from making delicious food that you feel good serving to everyone in the family. But it’s also about getting your bearings on feeding issues so that when things go awry, as they so often do when feeding children, you can comfortably stay in place. Even when the kids are being picky. Or there’s too little time. Or any of the other things that stress us out about mealtime.

Getting your bearings starts early—with baby’s first sip—and though there’s not much for me to post about the time before solids (sorry, you’ll have to get your recipe for breast milk cheese elsewhere), it counts.

There’s been some recent talk about breastfeeding and formula (when is there not?!) and I wanted to chime in. Because this isn’t just an issue for new moms. It’s related to how parents are left to find their way in a feeding landscape defined largely by industrialized food (and, in this case, pharmaceutical) companies. It matters to all of us.

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Sun poured in through the cafe window. Me and the hungry boy, an infant at the time, were sitting in the corner of our local coffee spot. I chose a table as far from everyone as possible, but still felt exposed. The table was right by the window. Everyone would see.

I reached into my bag and, with tears filling my eyes, pulled out a baby bottle filled with water. I considered giving him a few pure sips for show, but he was hungry. I snapped to and continued our new feeding process. Instead of unhooking a secret panel in my bra, I reached into my bag for a second time and shiftily pulled out a brand new, baby blue container filled with white powder.

The way I was acting, you would have thought it was cocaine. It was formula.

The story of how I became a reluctant formula feeder is long and, for me, painful. I have a passion for feeding and was crushed when I discovered, after consulting with (too) many experts, that I have an underlying health issue that keeps me from producing enough milk to feed my children. The hungry boy was 3-months-old when they told me that he wasn’t thriving on my breast milk alone. I started supplementing with formula and fell into a depression marked by a disturbing hostility towards my body and an unbearable sense of failure.

I eventually bounced back. I forgave my body (it affords me a full life and has given birth to two children). I even managed to supplement my second baby from the start. Doing so helped me breastfeed him, at least partially, for 5 months without losing my sanity the way I did the first time around. There’s a lot to be said for that. So why can’t I get over my distaste for formula? After all, it saved my children from starving.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the wake of Latch On NYC, a pro-breastfeeding (anti-formula?) initiative introduced by NYC’s mayor Bloomberg that requires participating hospitals to:

  • Enforce the NYS hospital regulation to not supplement breastfeeding infants with formula feeding unless medically indicated and documented on the infant’s medical chart;
  • Restrict access to infant formula by hospital staff, tracking infant formula distribution and sharing data on formula distribution with the Health Department;
  • Discontinue the distribution of promotional or free infant formula; and
  • Prohibit the display and distribution of infant formula promotional materials in any hospital location.

(By the way, participation is voluntary and can be partial.)

My first reaction to Latch On NYC was overwhelmingly positive. What an amazing thing! Then I started reading reactions like this one and this one, this one and this one, too. I commented on some of these posts but, truth be told, all of these smart conversations about motherhood, choice, and judgement (oh, the judgement!) had me a bit turned around.

I want choice!
I want to be free of judgement!
I want mothers to feel supported, capable, and most of all, free to be and do whatever they want!

But I don’t believe that the status quo gives us these things any more than the they will in Latch On NYC hospitals.

What most hospitals have now—where a single brand of formula is more readily available than breastfeeding support at one of the most critical times in breastfeeding success—is, in my opinion, an illusion of choice. What’s the difference between free floating formula and formula being available only by request? According to the research, the chance of great number of new moms giving breastfeeding a serious go. And, let’s get honest, shall well? Breastfeeding is better for baby. Formula is a suitable—sometimes even overall healthier—option that saves lives and feeds many healthy, happy, thriving babies, but there’s a lot to consider. And, to make matters more complicated, not all formulas are created equally.

While the FDA regulates the amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals contained in formula, it does not regulate the amount of sugar, the kind of sugar, quality of source ingredients, or how the formula is packaged. So, for example, some formulas—organic options included—contain significantly more sugar than others with no nutritional reason.

Who’s telling new moms about this stuff? Not to scare them away from formula, but to equip them with what they need to make an informed choice. When I started formula feeding, I had to figure this stuff out for myself and it was scary. I was afraid I’d make a bad choice. Though it had to be sought out, I could find breastfeeding support when I needed it. But all I could find in the way of support for formula feeding was information from formula companies. The same ones that you most commonly find in the hospitals. None of which make my formulas of choice.

Real choice will be available when women can count on hospital staff to provide them not just with breastfeeding skills, but also the tools to make smart decisions about choosing formula. When more than one brand is available in hospitals and health care providers can speak to the health benefits of each chosen brand. When instead of a branded goody bag, new moms walk out of the hospital knowing how to get affordable support for whatever decision they’ve made, including where to get coupons for their formula of choice.

Perhaps Latch On NYC is trading in one illusion of choice for another. I can see why some feel that way, and I certainly get that it only addresses a small part of a much larger issue. But as someone who feels passionately about empowering parents to feed their children in the healthiest way possible while staying sane and healthy themselves, it’s a small part of the issue that I care about. And Latch On NYC gives optimal health for baby precedent over marketing partnerships while still giving moms an option to choose between breastfeeding and formula.

I don’t think that my lingering distaste for formula is just about the stigma of formula or the mommy judgement that burned me over 5 years ago. It also has to do with the fact that I felt taken advantage of at my most vulnerable moment. How, in the most expansive free market, could I have had so few healthy options? Why was I being forced to feed my baby tons of sugar? Out of BPA-lined cans? Why so many recalls: Arsenic? Bad DHA and ARA supplements? Tainted milk? Veterinary drugs? Who was watching out for me and my babies and why was nobody there to help me figure it all out? Formula didn’t support my freedom of choice, it made me feel trapped into feeding my baby a food that I didn’t understand or believe in.

Perhaps if we can help moms make sense of formula and give them the tools to choose the best one for their circumstances—one that they can feel good about—I’ll finally feel better about formula. Oh, and getting some better, affordable formulas on the market would help, too.

Image via Shutterstock.com

23 Responses

  1. Bravo, Stacie. My son got formula in the hospital–he was jaundiced & stayed an extra night, and I wasn’t producing anywhere near enough to help him–and I freaked the f*(# out. It took five difft lactation consultants & 7 weeks to finally get us going on breastfeeding, and thank goodness for the LC who made it clear that formula is not poison. It’s food. But like you, I had to do all the research myself to find the *right* formula for my family. Not a fun thing to deal with when you’re already stressed & hormonal.

    Anyway, I’m with you on applauding Latch On NYC. So many people are misinterpreting what the program says/does. Read the explanation before deciding, everyone!

  2. Sasha says:

    Yes. What we need are ‘feeding’ consultants, who help and support moms, without judgment or agenda, find the best solution for themselves and their babies, and help them make it work. The money behind formula companies doesn’t make that easy, neither do close-minded lactivists (not all are close-minded, but too many are).

    I also was unable to exclusively breastfeed, and was devastated. Don’t worry about the judgment of others – for “whipping it out” in public or for shaking up a bottle of formula. Anyone who judges you for either isn’t worth your time.

    *hugs*

  3. Lauren says:

    So, a post on your formulas of choice?? :)

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Totally agree! I was taken by surprise at all the vitriol for Latch On NYC, and you make a great point that we need more education on ALL fronts, no matter what a mother chooses. Latch On seems all about putting the best choice front & center–for me, it’s as much about changing the attitude of the institution as that of new mothers.

  5. Kate says:

    What a well balanced, thoughtful and supportive post. I’m glad you added your voice to the mix!

  6. Meryl says:

    What a thoughtful post. I had a similar experience to yours, and those last couple of paragraphs just completely speak to my heart.

  7. Mom101 says:

    I love the points you make – so thoughtful and well-considered. My feeling is that yes, let’s get the formula pushing out of the equation. But then we need ample support for *all* women, whatever their choices. I think that starts with education before anyone even gets to the hospital, then increased lactation support in the hospital, and finally, lobbying for more nursing-friendly environments in the workplace and beyond afterwards.

    All that said, if a woman chooses to feed her baby formula in the hospital, I would hope she would get the very same support and guidance and not made to feel like you were made to feel. Lord knows new moms need less judgment in ALL realms– particularly if they’re making thoughtful decisions that are best for them and their family.

  8. Liz says:

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading this post. It is incredibly thoughtful and well said and a nice addition to the other points of view on this subject.
    (I’m usually a lurker, I love your posts and recipes!)

  9. lactmama says:

    Well done. I hope your post will be read by a wide audience.

    There SHOULD be experts in formula.Having worked in research labs for years, the first time I correctly made formula (at a WHO class), it took me 20 minutes to do it exactly as it should be done. There are so many variable involved and of course parents are not informed about this:things like not all bottles have exact markings, the scoop from one brand should never be used for another.

    There are a lot of issues with formulas (beyond the ones relating to human milk), preparation, cleanliness of utensils, bacterial growth, AND which formula is right for you. Hospitals usually have one brand. One size does not fit all.

    There need to be people trained to discern the differences, know the history of that particular brand. Also the health history of the parents is important – allergies, etc.

    How to feed your baby via bottle. Encourage closeness and bonding. Pace the feeding, learn about overfeeding. All things that do not magically come to you once the baby is outside of it’s mother’s body.

    Parents need to be able to chose to pick the best option for their baby.

    Both breastfeeding and formula feeding have a lot of learning involved. Mothers should demand help for whatever feeding method they choose.

  10. Jordan says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. I would love to know what you determined to be the “best” or healthiest formula on the market.

  11. One Hungry Mama says:

    @lactmama – you raise SO many important issue. i forgot about all that stuff, too! not only do you have to choose the right formula, but then how do you approach feedings to maintain closeness. and the overfeeding! my first son was (sadly) STARVING when i first gave him formula. he wanted to eat and eat and eat and i felt so guilty. i had no clue what was “right’. so stressful! thanks for chiming in!!

  12. One Hungry Mama says:

    @liz thanks for coming out of the woodwork. makes me happy!

  13. One Hungry Mama says:

    @mom101 amen! i love what sasha said about “feeding consultants” – lets just get these fuckers fed the best way we can, already and stop arguing about b’milk vs formula.

    *mic drop*

    xo

  14. One Hungry Mama says:

    thanks for sharing, meryl. it was a hard, hard time—i know. i still feel passionately about the issue bc i get stark raving mad at the idea that profit-driven corporations have a corner on something as fundamental as our nourishment and health. that said, both of my kids are way past the bottle and i never even think about what was in it. i hope you feel the same.

  15. One Hungry Mama says:

    @sasha feeding consultants. yes! brilliant! thanks, sasha!

  16. One Hungry Mama says:

    SOOO, you all want to know my formula of choice. Happy to share, though *keep in mind* that it’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve formula fed.

    Five years ago, when I first chose a formula, I went with Bright Beginnings Organic formula. None of the choices were (are?) great across all factors, but this one was organic, made more locally (VT) and had lower sugar. Since the HB was a baby, they had some trouble with their DHA and ARA supplements. They were also exposed (back in 07 or 08) as having said that they do not use BPA-lined cans when, in fact, they did (do?). Needless to say, I was sick to find this out after having fed him this stuff. I just went to their site and it’s very different now, with a whole section in Chinese and a Shanghai address. Were they purchased? Not sure what’s going on, but I’d look into it again if I had to.

    The second time around I opted for Baby’s Only Organic powder formula. It is still rated highly, as formulas go: http://www.mnn.com/family/babies-pregnancy/blogs/choosing-a-safe-and-healthy-infant-formula

    Earth’s Best Organic was my back up and alternate both times. Earth’s Best is owned by a much bigger food company that isn’t all happy, crunchy, granola, but, again, it seems to still be considered a smart choice in the current market (see the link above).

    BPA, nutritional supplements, sugar content. There’s a lot to consider. I like this cheat sheet from Safe Mama: http://safemama.com/2010/03/29/infant-formula-cheat-sheet/ (Note: it’s from 2010)

    You can also do a search on Good Guide for any products you’re considering: http://www.goodguide.com/ I just looked up all three formulas that I listed here and Baby’s Only was ranked highest on their “health” scale.

    Hope this is helpful. Would love others (maybe more recent formula feeders?!) to chime in.

  17. Mauresa says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I was unable to breastfeed both of my children as well and can totally relate to the embarrassment of forumla feeding in public. I would LOVE to know which formula you are using. After I discovered I would have to exclusively formula feed my second child, I was determined to find the “healthiest” brand I could, but I’m starting to wonder if there is such a thing!

  18. Stephanie says:

    This is such a great post. Thank you for writing it and sharing your experience. I exclusively pump (did for my first too) and this time around I’ve had supply issues and have tormented myself over possibly supplementing with formula. I think moms should feel supported and not ashamed of what they choose to feed their kids.

  19. Amelia says:

    Thank you for writing this! It’s funny that you say you felt embarrassed by formula feeding in public. I exclusively breastfeed and feel like everyone is staring and judging me when I have to feed my baby in public. I supplemented my first son with Baby’s one and only after doing a lot of research. It amazed me that it was really hard to find reliable analysis on the different brands. I agree it is sad, and I wish that there was somewhere we could go for these resources.

  20. Paula says:

    I’m grateful for your voice here. Many, Many of the mothers that I work with as a private practice IBCLC need to supplement. I’m often asked about formula recommendations and can offer very little. But now I can share at least that another mom has worked through this. Thank you.

    Best to you,
    Paula

  21. Kate says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I was unable to breastfeed my children, and it was devastating. Further compounding it was the guilt from the breastfeeding community; there is so little support for those of us whose bodies cannot support this beautiful tradition of mothering. The judgemental, “Oh, so you are not breasfeeding” as I am mixing a bottle of formula scenario played over and over again. And inevitably, I would reveal that I was unable to breastfeed and the response was {always}, “Yes, breastfeeding is hard.” Hard is one thing, I can do hard. Impossible is another. When these coversations rear their ugly heads, I remind myself that I am incredibly lucky to have had the support of my child’s pediatrician and their staff lactation consultant; both of whom held my children’s health as the highest priority and intervened. We are fortunate to live in a time and and place where there are options. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your research.

  22. Amanda says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I too had challenges breast feeding my two children and still deal with feelings of guilt and failure. My youngest is 9 months old now and I have been very happy with the Baby’s Only Formula for him. I agree, there isn’t enough unbiased research and information available for formula, you really have to gather as much info as you can and hope you’re making the right choice for your child.
    Thank you for your honesty and humor, it is truly appreciated.

  23. Ginger says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It always seems that if you arent breastfeeding, then it is like a sin or something. But knowing all the overwhelming options of formula is challenging also. So thanks for providing some great thoughts.

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