It's important to say from the outset, that sometimes formula feeding may be what’s in the best interests of an individual family.
Not all mothers can breastfeed and not all babies can breastfeed.
This article is not about negating those facts.
It's about the language used when discussing infant feeding.
In life, do we always do what is optimal, ideal or best?
For example, do we always eat the best food, make the best meals, wear the best clothes, drive the best car, live in the best house?
No, we don’t. Most of us are happy with standard or good enough options. We don’t need the best of everything.
When it comes to feeding our baby, if breast is best, then it’s still okay to formula feed, because it's adequate. Not the best, but just fine and good enough.
Or is it?
Formula Companies Love The ‘Breast Is Best’ Slogan
Yes it's true — formula companies love that ‘breast is best’. They even tell you so on their formula tins and television adverts.
You see, if we all believe that ‘breast is best’, then formula is not best, but it is still good enough. Many of us are happy with things that may not be best but are still good enough in life.
The truth is however, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal.
Breastfeeding Is The Biological Norm
Is breast really best?
Well, since breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed babies, it should be the benchmark or the control to which other forms of infant feeding are compared.
Breastfeeding is not best, it's just normal. Despite something else being necessary, anything else other than the normal is therefore, substandard.
However, being the biological norm doesn’t always mean being the cultural norm.
Cultural Versus Biological Norms
Despite breastfeeding being the biological norm in our society, formula feeding is largely the cultural norm.
In Australia, for example, 96% of mothers start out breastfeeding. The rates of any (and exclusive) breastfeeding thereafter drop off month by month. By 5 months only about 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed (meaning no other liquid or solid other than breastmilk) and by 6 months, only about 60% of babies are receiving any breastmilk.
In other words, by 5 months, 85% of babies have received something other than breastmilk (e.g. formula) and by 6 months, 40% are formula fed.
Indeed, formula use in our society is common.
The language we use also largely reinforces formula feeding as a cultural norm.
The “Benefits Of Breastfeeding”
Have you heard or read about the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding? You may have heard that breastfeeding ‘lowers the risk of infection’, or breastfeeding mothers have ‘lower risks of breast cancer’, or breastfed babies have ‘stronger immune systems’, or breastfeeding ‘enhances IQ’. Find out more about what science and evidence has proven to be risks of formula feeding, here.
Since breastfeeding is the biological norm, breastfed babies are not ‘healthier’. Rather, formula fed babies are not as healthy.
People may say, “Hey that's a terrible thing to say about formula fed babies!”
But saying otherwise comes at the cost of breastfeeding and healthy babies. Is that what we want?
Our baby feeding journey may have been really physically and emotionally tough, ending with formula, but do we want new mothers to follow in our footsteps of distress and struggle? Or do we hope they can enjoy a better experience, backed with the most evidence-based information available?
We know that it's not women's bodies who are failing. Countries like Cambodia have significantly improved from just 11% exclusive breastfeeding at six months (remember we're 15% at five months in Australia) to a whopping 74%.
Did their bodies improve? No. A mass breastfeeding education campaign was established by the Cambodian government. Find out more here.
By not representing data and information correctly, we're misrepresenting and undermining the importance of breastmilk, while not being honest or truthful. We're cutting something down to be more comfortable, while the genuine risks are being downplayed. We need to grow past the discomfort for the sake of future generations.
In order to shift from a largely formula feeding culture to a breastfeeding culture, we need to use language that reflects breastfeeding as the biological norm – in our language, in the media and in research. When this is done, parents can be better informed. Mass education about the risks and facts has significantly raised breastfeeding rates in other countries — way beyond our current rates. So we can do it here. We're tough, we can take it.
Informed Decision Making
Too often in our society, giving formula is often unnecessarily provided as a solution for a breastfeeding problem. This is hardly surprising when we look at the overall lack of health professional knowledge about breastfeeding.
In most situations, breastfeeding problems can be overcome without the need for formula. What is needed is timely and knowledgeable support.
However, because formula feeding is normalised in our society, this is not seen as a risk, but rather a benign activity, even a benefit or solution.
The truth is that there are risks associated with formula use. Parents deserve to be fully informed.
If from being fully informed, they make a decision to use formula, that is absolutely fine. They are the parent and that is their prerogative.
When we are able to make fully informed decisions, we are less likely to feel guilty.
Guilt Associated With How We Feed Our Babies
Some mothers feel a sense of guilt if breastfeeding doesn’t work out how they wanted it to.
No mother ever ‘fails’ at breastfeeding. In many ways though, our society can sometimes fail mothers, making it harder for them to reach their breastfeeding goals.
Through being as fully informed as you can (with accurate and up-to-date information), and by feeling well supported, most mothers will be able to meet their breastfeeding goals – whatever they may be.
However, everyone’s individual circumstances are unique. Even by being fully informed, for some families, the best option may be not breastfeeding. Everyone in our society has a role to play in making mothers feel supported no matter how she feeds her child.
Being a mother is so much more than how a baby is fed. Doing what is right for you, given your own unique circumstances is important. Be proud of doing what is right for you.
There are many things that need to happen in our society to improve breastfeeding rates. The vast majority of mothers want to breastfeed. We all have a role to play to help more mothers be able to achieve their goals. One thing we can do to assist this is thinking about the language we use when discussing infant feeding.