It’s healthier for the baby: Commercial formulas have been designed to “mimic” the nutritional contents of breast milk, and all products are regulated to ensure they contain the necessary amount of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, etc. That means formula-fed infants still get the necessary nutrients to grow healthy.
So, what’s the big deal then? Well, there is a key component that these formulas cannot provide: antibodies.
Newborns have underdeveloped immune systems and have a reduced ability to fight infections. However, antibodies from the mother can be passed through breast milk, protecting the baby from common illnesses. Breastfed babies have a decreased likelihood of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, allergies and even dental caries!
- It’s healthier for the mother: Hormones released during breastfeeding have a whole range of effects on the mother, and they are believed to provide short term benefits, such as reducing bleeding after delivery, increasing maternal bond with the child and even decreasing post-partum depression. However, the long-term benefits are even more interesting. Recent studies have shown that women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer, as well as type 2 diabetes. Pretty impressive for a single activity.
It’s safer: Although infant formula is perfectly safe in most cases, preparing it requires measuring the powders accurately, sterilizing bottles, using fridges etc. In countries where illiteracy, lack of clean water, lack of sterile conditions and lack of refrigeration are common, this type of feeding can result in contamination and cause high infant mortality due to malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia. Some organizations estimate that more than 820,000 child deaths would be prevented each year if almost all babies were breastfed.
In other cases, the safety problem comes directly from the manufacturer, as seen in the 2008 scandal of infant milk contaminated with melamine, which resulted in 54,000 babies being hospitalized.
- It’s cheaper: While breastmilk is available “for free”, we could argue that producing it costs the mother around 400-500 kcal per day, which means she will have to invest a little more in food for herself. Even taking into account this, the economic burden is insignificant compared to having to purchase all the products associated with formula feeding. If we are to consider the savings in healthcare due to reduced illnesses, the financial difference is even greater.
It’s better for the environment: It is a fact that artificial feeding leaves a major environmental footprint. Most formulas are based on powdered cow’s milk, and then supplemented with additives such as palm or sunflower oils, fish oils, minerals etc. It not only involves animal farming processes, but also manufacturing, packaging, transportation, etc. What’s more, powdered infant formula can be made safely only with water that has been heated to at least 70°C. And then you have the packaging… a 2009 study showed that 550 million infant formula cans are added to landfills every year. For the UK alone, carbon emission savings gained by breastfeeding would equate to taking between 50,000 and 77,500 cars off the road each year. Read-that-again.
The alternative, as put by the WBW campaign, is simple: “Breastmilk is a natural, renewable food that is environmentally safe and green because it is produced and delivered to the consumer without pollution, packaging or waste”. You simply can’t argue against that.
Capitalism: The link here is very obvious: Breastmilk can feed babies but does not feed corporations. And while there has always been a real need for commercial substitutes to help in cases where breastfeeding was not viable (for medical reasons, for example), initially the market was hardly significant. That was, of course, until big companies decided to start marketing their products as superior to the real thing. (“The finest baby food that the skill and scientific knowledge of man can devise” was one of their slogans).
And just like that, through corporate marketing, bottle feeding became a thing in the 60s and 70s. The same way that owning a TV, a washing machine or a car was considered a status symbol, being able to afford some fancy milk was too. Walking and breastfeeding was for the lower class, while driving and feeding your baby with a bottle was modern and sophisticated. As a consequence, in a few decades breastfeeding rates dropped from 70% to 15% in developed countries.
In developing countries, the marketing strategy was even more aggressive. Companies like Nestlé started distributing formula for free to new mothers in maternity wards. After leaving the hospital, the product was no longer free, but since the mothers had started using it, their breastmilk production would have naturally decreased, and they would have no choice but to continue buying it. This approach was not only disastrous in terms of economic burden for the families, but it is also thought to have caused thousands of infant deaths in African countries.
Luckily, we have come a long way in recent years. An International Code of Marketing for Breastmilk substitutes was developed as a consequence, and many countries have implemented legislation to prevent these type of practices.
However, this is still a big business nowadays. The global infant formula market size is projected to be worth USD 104 BILLION by the end of 2026, and everyone wants a piece of the cake.
Some companies are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic by running online adverts appealing to fearful parents, and again the biggest manufacturer, Nestlé, despite being denounced and boycotted by NGOs continuously since the 1970s because of its unethical practices, has in 2020 started distributing its infant products in India and Pakistan as part of so-called “COVID relief” donations, going once more against international regulations.
In light of this, we should really question if formula feeding is “just another option” to make life easier for families, or a manipulative attempt at profit making at any cost.
Fetishization of female breasts: In parallel with marketing pressures, new mothers also have to deal with cultural barriers and social scrutiny.
I always like to tell the story of when I was part of a recruitment process for nurse assistants in South Sudan. One of the candidates of that day came into the room with a baby in her arms, and in the middle of the interview, without saying anything, opened her shirt, exposed her breasts and started feeding her child. The conversation did not stop even for a second, and the rest of the interview panel, all South Sudanese, both male and female, did not bat an eyelid.
Can you imagine a similar situation in a Western country? Me neither.
(In case you are interested, she got the job).
Paradoxically, the objectification and hyper sexualization of female breasts in certain cultures have a negative effect on breastfeeding. In some Western countries, breasts are nowadays considered purely sexual and therefore obscene in public, and women are constantly told to cover up, to breastfeed at home, or even in the bathroom.
Male partners are often not supportive either, as they often argue that they don’t like other men seeing what they consider should be solely for their enjoyment. (insert eyeroll here).
Even in social media platforms, where a video of a woman twerking in a thong can go viral, a picture of a woman breastfeeding will be censured if it shows a bit of nipple.
Although in many parts of the world breastfeeding in public is legal and accepted, in countries such as the US, it is common for mothers to still face scrutiny and backlash while doing it. Not surprisingly, breastfeeding rates in the US are only 51% at 6 months and 30% at one year.
Lack of adequate support for female workers: I often hear that women’s participation in the workforce is related to things like decreased fertility or breastfeeding rates. And while that might be technically true, this type of statement may give the impression that women developing professionally is somehow the problem, or that the solution is for women to stay at home, both of which I find problematic.
Instead, we should pay attention to the real issue, which is that women have adapted to the needs of the workplace, while workplaces have not adapted to the needs of women.
As an anecdote, I can recall I once signed a work contract stating that, should I get pregnant while employed, my employer would provide two weeks of maternity leave. Yes, you read that correctly. TWO WEEKS. How can a new mother follow the WHO recommendation of providing 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding while continue to work full time? Studies around the world have consistently shown a direct correlation between the length of maternity leave and breastfeeding rates.
In addition, according to studies in the US, in the month a new mother returns to work, she is 2.2 times more likely to quit breastfeeding as compared to her non-working counterparts. Therefore, if employment conditions encourage women to continue breastfeeding as they go back to work, they may be more likely to continue breastfeeding duration as recommended.
In the current conditions, it is not surprising that women choose, or are forced to choose, formula milk as the only viable option to feed their newborns without putting their career at risk.