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Let food be thy medicine

I have come to learn the any PR for breastfeeding is good PR.  It gets people passionate and talking.  Just look at the number of Google searches about breastfeeding around the time immediately after Time magazine released their sensational cover.  I want to share my perspective about the most recent PR for breastfeeding: the decision NYC Mayor Bloomberg announced regarding infant formula.

What has influenced my perspective?  I have been a registered nurse for 5 years.  I worked in maternal child health, which includes labor and delivery, postpartum and nursery for the last 3 years.  I worked at a small, rural, county hospital that had between 600-800 deliveries a year.  I quickly saw that I knew nothing about breastfeeding and much of the education I received from the seasoned nurses around me conflicted with recent research.  In my studying, I trained to become an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, which I received October 2011.  I delivered my first child in July 2011 who I am still nursing.  And breastfeeding my son was not easy at all despite my extensive training. 

I was not in the least surprised by Mayor Bloomberg’s announcement. What has surprised me is the response and huge rift between pro-breastfeeding and pro-formula feeding/anti-breastfeeding.

Mayor Bloomberg did not reach this decision alone.  He had the help of breastfeeding professionals, pediatricians, obstetricians, midwives, dieticians, and major organizations.  He is one of the leaders to lock up formula, but is not the first.  He is the first to speak so publicly about it.  This is not an act of punishment or an assault on mothers who choose to formula feed.

Is it extreme to lock up formula though?  Some blogs are comparing it to being locked up like narcotics and mothers will have to beg and plead with nurses to let them have just one bottle and who can promise that it would be given in a timely manner?  This is an over reaction.  There will be no time delay.  This is to allow mothers who want to breastfeed a chance to succeed.  It’s easy around the second day for a mother to be tired and a sympathetic nurse may offer just one bottle.  Just one bottle can mean the difference between success and failure.  I’m sure there is a story out there of a baby who had an entire bottle of formula at birth and still went on to breastfeed without issue for 3 years.  I’m not talking about that extreme.  I’m talking about the percentage of mothers who come into the hospital wanting to “try” to breastfeed and the actual percentage who left exclusively breastfeeding.  They are lower than you think. 

So, is this an issue of staff education?  You bet it is.  But that’s just one facet of this multi-dimensional problem.  Nurses and doctors and health care professionals are not gods.  They have personal beliefs that reflect through their care.  Not every nurse and doctor breastfed their own children.  Shocked? Being a nurse or doctor does NOT make mean he/she is a lactivist; this fact alone almost bears repeating.  There is a lot of personal opinion invested in parenting, even in the world of professionals.  I think that lactation consultants make up for some of this “lactivism” which can sometimes reach the opposite extreme.

Handing out free samples of formula to anyone in the hospital is unethical.  Period.  Whether it’s for “just in case”, for supplementing because of breast surgery, or because the mother has said from day one that she is going to formula feed.  Handing out free samples is marketing.  Nurses and health care professionals are giving formula companies free advertising.  This would be completely unacceptable for healthcare equipment, why is it ok for formula?  It isn’t.  And these samples are not free.  Somebody pays for it, and if you have seen the price of formula lately, it’s not hard to see how formula companies are getting it.  Yes, it’s expensive and I think overly expensive.  But that is another facet of the problem.  Why is it so expensive?  How do we make it cheaper?  How can we ensure that it does get to people who legitimately need it?  Contrary to popular belief, WIC does not always cover the entire cost of formula.  And women who are not on WIC do not receive any assistance.

Breastfeeding should be supported.  And the reason why so many women (including myself) are so passionate about it is because there are so many reasons why we should help every single mother achieve breastfeeding if she wants it.  There are several barriers to breastfeeding that have been carefully placed over the last century that are going to take a lot of time to fix.  It will take generations to fix.  And requiring medical reasons (including a mother’s personal choice) to supplement formula is a step in the right direction.  This is not hurting anyone but the formula companies.

The grey area in this matter is that by doing this, formula is being treated like a medicine and not just food.  Well, I consider breastmilk to be like medicine.  If we compared breastmilk and all of it’s nutrients and immunity factors that is specially formulated by the mother to the perfect medicine, no mother would ever want to withhold that medicine from her child and it would be unethical for health care professionals to do this.

This would be solved with more donor milk banks.  Instead of formula, if a mother does not want to breastfeed or pump or is unable to, supplement of human milk should be offered.  There is very rarely an extreme case where a human baby can not consume human milk no matter what diet/medication/alteration we give the mother.  These babies would not have survived before formula and we will all graciously rejoice with formula.  Human milk is being treated as medicine for the small places and NICUs that use donor milk.

Formula is not disappearing, at least not in my lifetime.  Mayor Bloomberg’s decision is not an attack on women’s rights.  It’s not going away and more hospitals are already following suit.  Women still have a right to choose how they want to feed their child.  I support any woman’s informed decision about how she wants to feed her child.  Until the day that milk banks are available for every mother who needs it…

One comment on “Let food be thy medicine

  1. nicely said and I totally agree!

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