27 September 2011


Supporters of breast feeding are generally applauding the trend that fewer hospitals are giving away free samples of formula to new moms. I certainly see the argument. Even if the hospital hires lactation consultants and gives lip service to the benefits of nursing for both mother and child, the act of handing over the formula (which hospitals usually receive free from formula manufacturers) is seen as complicit support of formula as the diet of choice for newborns.

When the resurgence of breast feeding amongst women in the U.S. meant that formula sales fell instead of continuing to rise as expected, Nestle sent Caucasian employees dressed in white coats to places like Africa to give free samples away. These were not doctors, but they were dressed like doctors. The result was that women who had fed their families successfully for generations were led to believe that formular is better than breast milk. Unfortunately, while an adequate source of nutrition and certainly not overtly dangerous to the infants whose mother's cannot or chose not to nurse them, in communities with no clean water supply and where financial limitations mean that formula is likely to be mixed at half-strength to save money, formula is in fact dangerous. Dirty water and the diarrhea it brings with it kill infants, infants who would never have fallen ill had they been nursed.

In the United States the stakes are not quite so high, the situation not so dire. Still, the protective effects of breast milk have very real financial impact on the health care system and on families as a whole. Fewer childhood illnesses translates to fewer missed days of work for parents and fewer doctors visits.

So I do support breast feeding and not only because the AAP tells me to. But I also support having a few bottles of formula in the back of a cupboard somewhere and, since no gung ho new nursing mom wants to have to walk into a store and actually admit that she is going to buy formula, then by all means let the hospitals give it to them for free.

Emmaline got no formula in the hospital when she was born. We had no formula in the house when we went home. She had no formula for the week that I sobbed each and every time she nursed because we were not latching right. And that meant we had no formula within easy arm's reach when I spiked a fever of one-hundred-and-two from the mastitits I had developed and that I, despite feeling as if I had been hit by a truck, continued to be her only source of food.

We nursed for another year. We were by no means breast feeding failures. And I don't know for sure that if I had guilt-free formula stashed away somewhere that I would have actually used it. But even if I didn't, just knowing it was there would have made nursing Em a choice and maybe I wouldn't have felt so scared or helpless. Maybe I would have taken a break and been able to heal before the bacteria took hold beneath my skin and I ended up back in the hospital and on IV antibiotics for 4 days. Maybe we would have been healthier, the two of us, with a little formula on the side, our dirty little secret.

Em, of course, didn't care. She nursed like a champ even when she was biting holes in me to do it. She gained weight. We eventually got the hang of it and I wouldn't trade the closeness of those moments for anything in the world. But when a new mother looks at me on the day she is about to go home from the hospital and tells me that she doesn't know if she can make it on breast milk alone, I tell her I understand.

I make a hard sell for exclusive breast feeding, of course, but then I tell her that if she takes some formula home and hides it somewhere at least she won't have to worry. If there is a night she is throwing up and can't get out of bed, then she can take care of herself while her partner takes care of the baby. Because nursing, health benefits or not, is not worth it if it detracts from instead of adding to the joy of having a child. Nursing is hard work. But, like baseball, it's the hard that makes it great.

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