A Translation Guide for Navigating the Terrain Between Breastfeeders and Formula-Feeders

Talking about breastmilk or formula can be difficult to navigate with a loose, slippery, and uneven terrain.  One second you think you have sure-footing and the next you’re on your butt.

I’m not going to deny that hurtful phrases come from breastfeeding supporters, occasionally in the form of personal attacks, and if you’ve personally experienced that, I’m truly sorry.  Please know that most of us just want to get information out there, encourage others and want to see babies fed.  Including me.

More often I see what are truly meant as innocuous statements of information and education that are simply misunderstood.  All of us experience life through a variety of personal filters and we often have sensitive areas that automatically put us on our guard and we may take things as a personal attack when that’s hardly the intent.  When it comes to feeding babies all those devoted moms doing their best have some serious passion.

An article is released sharing the findings of a new study that revealing some new findings about breastmilk or there may be some issues with formula and hundreds of comments pour in with things like “formula is the same thing, really and all the breastfed kids I know are sick all the time but my formula fed kids have genius IQs and are never sick” or “you know, not everyone can breastfeed so I guess I’m a bad mom because my breasts just didn’t work.”  To add fuel to the fire there are the comments that say things like “See, this is why I’m so glad I gave my babies the best and breastfed.”  And really, what does saying something like that do for anyone?  Heaven forbid it be an article on a formula recall and the “so glad I breastfeed, breastmilk is never recalled” comments start flooding Facebook newsfeeds and loading the comments section on blogs and articles.  Nothing like rubbing someone’s face in their scary circumstances and flaunting “sucks to be you!”  If we’re not careful we cross the line from passionate advocacy into plain ol’ bullying.

Then there’s the mom celebrating her success in breastfeeding, sharing “So excited we’ve made it to 6 months without even one drop of formula!  GO BOOBIE MILK!  WOOT!”  In that moment that mom is inviting everyone to a party at her house because she’s truly excited about her accomplishment.  But just as sure as she’s about to pop the cork on that sparkling grape juice to pour a round for everyone someone says something like “I don’t know why everyone has to be so down on formula, it makes moms that use it feel bad.”

They probably don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer and they don’t intend to dismiss the celebration of that mom (or maybe they do, I can’t really say) but stirring in their internal narrative of parenting confidence are insecurities on this issue, perhaps closer to the surface than they realized.  Instead of being able to celebrate with that mom, they are having to deal with their own less than happy feelings and defend, at least to themselves, their reality.

Thankfully, most of the time people can just say some encouraging and supportive words.  Once in a while, far more often than I’d like, the communication deteriorates.  Quickly.  As though we’re trying to have an important conversation but lack the skills.  Like we’re speaking different languages.

Maybe we need an interpreter?  What follows is my light-hearted attempt at some translations to help us navigate these slippery slopes.

 

It’s not a put down on formula feeding mothers when breastfeeding advocates say:

 

“Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby.”

What we don’t mean:  “Formula feeding moms are less of a mother and less than normal.”  We know that’s not true.  We also know that breastfeeding isn’t (yet) accepted as normal in society.  We certainly don’t mean that it is always easy or even possible for every mom.  Or that formula feeding moms don’t deserve to be treated as normal, loving, caring mothers because we know they are normal, loving, caring mothers.  Nope, none of those things are what we mean.

What we do mean:  Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed a baby.  A mother’s body is programmed to breastfeed and a newborn baby is programmed TO breastfeed.  Meaning that, barring any physical difficulties, babies are born ready to breastfeed; the delivery of the placenta signals the mother’s breasts to produce milk to feed, the mother’s body biologically responds to birth by producing milk, and human milk is (usually) the perfectly formulated food biologically for a human baby.

 

“I’m proud to breastfeed.”

We don’t mean:  “I’m better than a formula feeding mom.”  Just like being proud to be a mother isn’t a put down to those aren’t mothers, so being proud of breastfeeding isn’t a put down to those that don’t breastfeed.

We do mean:  Breastfeeding is important to us and sometimes it’s hard and comes with recognized challenges.  We’re celebrating our accomplishment of something we value as important for ourselves.  We’re also recognizing that there is a lot in our society that sabotages moms that want to breastfeed and combating that can be challenging.

 

“I love the bond I have with my baby with breastfeeding.”

We don’t mean:  “Moms that don’t breastfeed aren’t as connected to their babies.”  Feeding a baby is a deep connection no matter how it’s done and is just one way parents bond with their babies.  Most of us know moms that formula-fed and are incredibly bonded to their children and don’t doubt for a second that formula-feeding moms deeply love their children.

We do mean:  This is something we consider special and helps us feel connected to our child.  That, to us, breastfeeding has a deep feeling of interconnection that goes beyond something we can explain but we try even thought words fail us.  Feeding our babies with our milk and at our breasts is one way we feel deeply bonded to our babies.

 

“I’m so glad I’ve never had to give my baby formula” or “I’m so glad she’s not had 1 drop of formula.”

We don’t mean:  “Formula feeding moms are lazy or giving their babies poison.”  Nope, it’s not a commentary on what someone else does.  We’re not saying that somehow formula feeding moms should be ashamed of giving their babies formula or that never giving a baby formula is some dividing line between the good moms and the bad moms.

We do mean:  Like being proud of breastfeeding, not giving their baby formula just feels like a personal accomplishment.  It is in no way a reflection of our opinion of anyone else’s choice or situation, merely an acknowledgment of a personal goal.

 

“Breastfeeding is beautiful!”

We don’t mean:  “It’s perfectly beautiful all the time.”  Finding something beautiful doesn’t mean it’s easy or right for everyone and it doesn’t even mean we always enjoy the experience.

We do mean:  Not only do we NOT find it gross, we also think it is special, something wonderful, and to be celebrated.  It is more than nutrition to us and is a beautiful experience we treasure even though it has plenty of challenges along the way.  We also know that not everyone agrees with us, that’s part of why we say it though so we can hope to change negative cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding.

 

“Breast is best!”

We don’t mean:  “The moms that breastfeed are the best moms and the moms that don’t are just ok or bad.”  That’s not it at all.  In fact, this slogan came first from formula companies when they were forced to acknowledge that breastmilk was a superior product to formula.  They had to acknowledge that but had to find a way that could make formula sound normal and breastfeeding to sound like it was a parenting “extra,” an optional choice.

We do mean:  Breast milk is the best food choice available for a baby and young child.  Personally, I don’t care for this statement myself (you can find more on that here) but I know when people say it they aren’t intending anything other than their enthusiasm for breastfeeding and stating a simple fact: breast milk is good for babies.  It’s not a put down towards anyone.

 

“I feel sorry for babies that aren’t breastfed.”

We don’t mean:  “Those kids are just so screwed.”  This comment makes me uncomfortable, I don’t like it.  But I understand where it’s coming from and why it’s said.  Those of us that breastfeed see the joy and delight our own children have in the experience, how they love breastfeeding.  We are completely convinced it is special for both them and ourselves in a purely innocent, sweet way.  While it can be very close to a put down, I don’t believe it usually is intended as such and we don’t actually full on pity children that didn’t get to breastfeed but rather mourn the loss of an experience we consider special.

We do mean:  This is an awkward but genuine expression of sadness for those missing out on something we feel is so special.  Should it be said?  I don’t think so.  But if it is I hope formula-feeding moms can understand it is most likely only because the speaker/writer truly believes every child should get to have the marvelous experience her own enjoyed so much.

 

“There need to be strict regulations regarding the manufacturing and marketing of formula.”

We don’t mean:  “Formula-feeding parents are gullible and fall for the marketing of poisonous formula.”  Voicing the view point that there need to be standards in how formula is marketed and that there should be strict regulations for formula as a product isn’t a reflection on the parents at all.  It may reflect a cynical distrust that formula manufactures have anything other than a bottom line on their mind (Unsupportive Support- For a Profit).  Ultimately though, those of us that believe that the manufacturing and marketing of artificial breastmilk substitutes in infant and toddler nutrition believe so for the good of the children’ receiving the product.

We do mean:  Even if our children don’t receive formula, the children that do are worth higher standards of excellence.  We demand transparency and better regulations for artificial breastmilk substitutes manufacturing for the babies that need it. Formula is necessary, the health of many children depend on it being manufactured with integrity.

 

Before you find yourself careening down a conversation on your butt, try to remember that most people aren’t trying to start something and those that are probably aren’t worth your time.  As a breastfeeding mother, I promise, I’m not trying to push formula feeding parents down.  We’re all just carefully trying to pick our way over the rocks, slippery spots, and potential jabs to enjoy the view life has to offer and with a little bit of sensitivity and understanding going both ways, we can all offer a hand to each other in spite of our differences.

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Unsupportive Support- For a profit

In recent years offering breastfeeding support has gained popularity.  Which is a good thing, strange though it is to say.  In fact, it’s uncouth to not be supportive of breastfeeding in light of the magnitude of research showing breastfeeding to be so beneficial to babies and mothers.  So magazines, websites, even businesses now offer frequent support with articles on breastfeeding, pages devoted to trouble shooting potential breastfeeding problems, staff experts responding to breastfeeding questions, and even live support available online or to call in to speak to someone.  In theory it sounds great and in some ways it is.  But even in offering support there are opportunities for unsupportive support.  And this time it’s a little more unsettling because it comes with resounding financial gains to those offering the support raising the question, is it even support at all?  This time in the series on unsupportive support we’re taking a look at the murky waters of advertising support, marketing, and profits.  (We’ve already looked at how breastfeeding advocates can offer unsupportive support here.)

 

How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 7.

Unsupportive support is…

Breastfeeding help hotlines or websites breastfeeding pages sponsored by formula companies.

This one is controversial and I kind of understand why.  But the way I see it this is one of societies most insidious forms of unsupportive support.  It looks like support.  It sounds like support.  It is even advertised as support.  Except it’s run by a company that profits when breastfeeding moms quit breastfeeding.  Maybe I’m cynical but when a company’s profits can be directly tied to how well moms that intended to breastfeed fare in reaching their goal, it just seems a little hard to believe that there are altruistic motives in supporting those moms.  When a website that is supposed to be addressing questions about breastfeeding is plastered with a formula company’s brand with images of smiling, peaceful babies presumably fed with their product all the while supporting content that uses carefully selected language about how hard and difficult it can be to breastfeed and give your baby the best, it’s underhanded marketing to someone looking for help.  This isn’t support, this is marketing, make no mistake.  Formula companies are smart, they would not waste their money sponsoring and creating these sites and helplines if they didn’t feel it increased their branding opportunities and bottom line.  I believe women are smart, they can make their own decisions but I also know that there are times when a decision can be influenced one way or another and when someone is in need of help that super happy looking formula fed baby sure is enticing and the wrong information given to address her particular need could be all that is required for the mother to become a regularly paying customer.  Which is exactly what this form of unsupportive support is counting on.

Free formula samples in breastfeeding support bag in hospitals and doctor offices.

Another controversial one.  Some see removing formula samples from hospital bags and doctor offices as removing a woman’s choice in how she feeds her baby.  I don’t understand that argument, the choice is still there, you just have to pay for it upfront.  Concern is that not giving out free formula samples is being unsupportive to those that choose to formula feed.  That just isn’t the case, not handing formula out to each woman that comes through their doors and gives birth would be more supportive of formula feeding moms in that it would lower the overall expense of formula by the formula companies no longer spending millions on the free samples hospital program.  Those free samples aren’t free anyway.  They are absorbed in the price of the product, it’s all a part of their business plan.  Again, a company would not waste their money handing out free product if it did not yield a return on their brand and profits.  Make no mistake, they aren’t handing out free samples to help moms, they are handing out free samples to hook buyers and to give the impression that the hospital endorses their product.  These companies are smart, and they should be, they have shareholders and employees to take care of.  Formula has it’s place, that’s not the issue here.  Nor is there any judgment on formula feeding.  Rather the problem is that marketing tactics masquerading as support undermine breastfeeding and do so for a profit.  This study reveals how this is unsupportive with numbers such as “Women who didn’t receive the free samples were 3.5 times more likely to be breastfeeding exclusively after 2 weeks…”  (Read more about how the numbers really break down from PhD in Parenting.)  Tacticts to get formula into the hands of moms when they are most vulnerable, exhausted, and in that crucial time when milk supply is being established in those early weeks isn’t supporting them in their attempts to breastfeed.  Nor is it supporting formula feeding families either, instead, these samples going to everyone leaving the hospital with a new baby drives up the price they have to pay at the register for the next 2 years of formula buying.  For those that truly need assistance buying formula to feed their baby, there are options through aid programs that can and should be utilized if necessary and while in the hospital formula should be covered by insurance.  Hopefully more and more states will make the decision Rhode Island made recently to refuse to allow formula samples to continue sabotaging breastfeeding and both breastfeeding moms and formula feeding moms can find some real support from formula companies just by having them back off, stop undermining breastfeeding, and maybe even lower the register cost for their product by not sending the free stuff home with those that really want to breastfeed.  Better idea for support?  Sending the name and number of a lactation consultant home with the mother, free access to a lactation consultant during her hospital stay,  independent breastfeeding resources, and the information on a breastfeeding support group would be real support.

 

If you don’t want to breastfeed then don’t.  I’d encourage you to try it before you completely make up your mind but if you don’t want to do that, nobody’s going to force you.  Your body, your baby, your choice.  And I hope nobody undermines your attempts to formula feed.  Free samples and formula company support advice isn’t about choice, it’s about marketing.  There is a distinct difference there.

If you want to breastfeed beware of the unsupportive support that aims to line someone else’s pockets.  Formula isn’t evil and it can be a needed tool in feeding our babies but it can also sabotage any breastfeeding relationship.  The companies that make it aren’t inherently evil either but they are watching out for their shareholders and bottom line profits before they are concerned about women experiencing breastfeeding success.  The more women that breastfeed, the more it cuts into their profits.  Their marketing tactics are getting more aggressive as breastfeeding gains more mainstream attention and accolades.

Still, some truly supportive support receives financial gain for those offering the support.  Lactation consultants do and should get paid for the work they do.  Even this site earns some income through the sponsorship of the companies whose ad buttons you can see on the side.  So is earning a profit from supporting breastfeeding really only self-serving?  I don’t think so and I don’t think I’m saying that to defend myself.  I don’t think it’s self-serving and thus unsupportive support, for one important reason: there is nothing to gain from a woman not reaching her breastfeeding goal.

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Did you receive samples of formula and did you use them?  Do think formula samples can undermine a breastfeeding mother’s efforts?

Do you feel formula companies can be trusted to dispense advice and support on breastfeeding?

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Unsupportive Support- Cultural breastfeeding ignorance: toddlers and introducing solids

breastfeeding beyond a year

I bet at least half of those reading this are uncomfortable with that picture.

I get that society isn’t comfortable with breastfeeding in many ways, despite all the lip service given to “breast is best.”  So it’s not a big surprise that socially speaking most people don’t even have a basic idea of what’s normal or healthy with breastfeeding.  With this in mind much of what is unsupportive support comes from this place of ignorance and lack of exposure to normal, healthy breastfeeding.  It is my hope that time will change this problem because we have allowed our emphasis on the sexual nature of breasts to replace a general understanding of normal human biology.  However, waiting won’t change the unsupportive support spreading as a result of this collective ignorance of society so those unintentional acts must be addressed.  Continuing the series on unsupportive support, let’s take a look at a few of these common issues stemming from society’s lack of understanding of normal and healthy breastfeeding.

Does this one weird you out too?

 

How not to support and how to avoid being unintentionally unsupportive- part 6.

Unsupportive support is…

Ever asking “Isn’t he too old for that?” or “If they can ask for it they’re too old, it’s just gross.”

First thought that goes through my mind when I hear this: “Aren’t you too old to be so rude?”  Manners, people, try them.  This is not your child, this is not your choice.  Plus, the answer is no, the child isn’t too old.  Wherever you draw the imaginary cut off line for breastfeeding, it’s just that, imaginary.  What is it you’re really afraid of anyway?  That it somehow becomes sexual?  Remember, that fear is founded in an adult perception of breasts, not a child’s.  Are you concerned that the child will grow overly dependent on breastfeeding and need to breastfeed when they are in college?  Please, in cultures where it is common for children to wean on their own timeline, this is unheard of.  And even if it were to happen, wouldn’t that make it their problem, not yours?  Still, I’m not going to give this concern any more energy, I’ve never once met someone that had a college-age child breastfeeding.  You may be out of touch with what normal duration breastfeeding looks like, sometimes called “extended breastfeeding” but I have to ask, extended beyond what?  The minimum recommendations?  Extended beyond society’s distorted perception of normal breastfeeding?  Extended beyond your personal comfort level?  Extended beyond the imaginary cut off line for breastfeeding  The major health organizations in the world encourage mothers to breastfeed for at least 2 years and they recommend women continue as long as it is mutually agreeable.  Mutually.  Between the breastfeeding mother and the breastfeeding child.  Not you.  It’s up to them so butt out.  Babies start using the only communicating tools they know to start asking for it as soon as they are born, you can read here about normal newborn behavior.  A mother responding to her child’s signs of hunger = good parenting, not a bad habit.  It’s important that you recognize and get comfortable now with this thought: “My opinions aren’t always right for everyone and sometimes I should just keep them to myself.”

Sneaking food to a small child without asking their parents permission or arguing with them about their choice to wait to introduce foods.

It boggles my mind how often I read “I can’t trust my mother-in-law/uncle/brother/grandpa/etc. with my 3 month old, they insist on giving him tastes of food, even stuff like ice cream or dangerous choking hazards!”  People, it’s not your kid, not your turn to make these kind of decisions.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, shoot, friends get to spoil a kid, it’s true.  When my kids are older I don’t care if my parents take them out for ice cream for breakfast when they get to have them on their own.  It’s their grandparent prerogative and I support it on occasion.  But that has to be something discussed and approved (even with disapproval) and the limits recognized and respected.  Giving a baby foods that their parents, you know, the people that are responsible for them, take them to the doctor, are reading the most up to date information on what babies need, and are up at night with them, haven’t approved is not only disrespectful but it’s dangerous.  Between ruining a virgin gut (google it), risking allergen exposure, and introducing textures they may not be physically developed enough to handle and thus pose a potential choking risk, there is absolutely no good reason EVER to sneak food to another parent’s child.  And arguing with them about their decision for the health and safety of their child, even if you think they are wrong or extreme, is not helping either the parent or the child.  If you’re truly concerned do your research before bringing it up.  In order to offer support that’s actually helpful, you need to be familiar with current information and research as well as possible controversy.  In the end you have to respect their decision or you will remain that person they can’t trust.  And yes, they can’t trust you which means they will never be comfortable leaving their child in your hands.  Coming to terms with “I am not the person(s) ultimately responsible for this child, I do not have the authority or position to make this decision and must respect the people that do.”  By the way, this goes for formula fed babies too.  Allergies, food sensitivities, immature digestive tracts, and choking hazards are real concerns for them as well.  This is their long term health you’re messing around with and you don’t have that right or responsibility.

 

Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed a small infant and child.  Just because we’re not used to it as a society does not mean that there is something wrong with it.  Before critiquing the mother willing to go against societal norms to do what she truly believes is best for her child, please educate yourself as to why she would do that in the first place.  Or at least express your thoughts and concerns by asking respectfully why she has chosen a certain path over another.  When it comes to decisions regarding that child’s health step carefully.  There is controversy surrounding just about every health decision parents are faced with today, cut them some slack and just respect that they are thinking people that may be ok with discussing their decision but deserve to be respected in them even if you disagree.  Please don’t let cultural ignorance determine how you feel about something or how you respond to something.  Challenge yourself, is the problem really what that mother is doing or is the problem that as a society we just can’t imagine anything other than what we’ve grown accustomed to.  Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and offer real support, not ignorant social judgments.

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Have you received comments about your child being “too old” to breastfeed?  How did you respond?

Are there people around you that you can’t trust because they don’t respect your parenting choices?

Have you ever had someone feed or almost feed your child something you felt was dangerous?

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