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  • Writer's pictureJulia Iddir

THE POLITICS OF FEEDING

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

I’ve been reading a lot recently about breastfeeding (especially as we’ve just had World Breastfeeding Week). It’s a bit of a mine field posting on social media on this topic because it’s such an immensely controversial issue. If you post something pro BFing you get the “leave it alone, everyone can make their own choice, fed is best” crowd and if you post something pro any-feeding / neutral you get the “they’re not the same, BF is best, you shouldn’t be neutral about it” comments.

Months back I read The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer. Such an enlightening read. It’s not about who and what is best, it’s simply about how and why formula came about, and became so prevalent. The statistics and facts she presents are shocking at best, but she’s not saying no one should formula feed, she’s just explaining how we got to this place where women don’t even believe they can do it in the first place.

I BF my boys, but I wasn’t able to BF my daughter and the guilt surrounding that eats me up to this day. I used to imagine this scenario in which a stranger came up to me while I was bottle feeding her in public and I’d have to justify my reasoning for this. I mean, that’s just my own internal conflict going on there, but how ridiculous that I would feel like it was anyone’s business but my own. On the other hand, I want every women out there to know that there is no substitute for breast milk, and that years and years of propaganda, teaching us that formula is ‘just as good as’ breast milk is fake. It’s totally false. Yes, it’s the next best thing, but it’s not the same.

Did you know that breast milk contains 15 main ingredients. They are viral fragments, white cells, enzymes, oligosaccharides, bifidus factor, hormones, anti-inflammatory, immunoglobulins, nucleotides, transfer factors, vitamins, fat carbohydrates, protein and water. Of all those ingredients, the only ones that are in formula are the last 5. Oligosaccharides get a special mention. For years nobody could even figure out what their job was: they can’t be digested so some felt they were some kind of byproduct. It’s now understood that these are sugars that feed the good bacteria in the gut. They help the digestive system and bladder to keep out germs. Clever old breast milk!

Here’s another thing you may not know. In the 1980s a set of rules were written up, part of which banned formula companies from advertising formula as a substitute for breast milk in those early months (because misleading advertising was leading too many of us to believe that formula was in fact the best thing for our babies with totally false claims such as “…clinically proven to support cognitive development”). Hm… bit of a problem for them then. So thats why they created follow on milks (which, by one companys’ own admission, is the same product under a different label). There are no rules regarding the advertisement of these. So we see our lovely adverts on the telly, with our beautiful healthy toddler and a happy, relaxed mother. The topic of breast feeding is mentioned; just enough to draw us in (conversely of course, no mention is made of the possible risks). Then we are told “when you are ready to move on from BFing…” (as if there is a finite amount of time we should be doing this for) here’s what your toddler would be best off having. So we trust this product – we recognise this brand as being good for our little one. The cleverest thing of all though, is that the packaging is identical for follow on milk as for stage 1 milk (save for a number: stage 1, stage 2 etc). So they are – indirectly, but absolutely intentionally – selling us their stage 1 formula milk, as a substitute to breast milk.

Now, I AM NOT the breastfeeding police. Like I said, I’ve been on both sides of the table. I just wish that more of us had the opportunity to make an educated decision without nonsense false clais and romanticised images of happy babies. I wonder how many of us chose to formula feed because our mothers told us it was hard, or that “you were formula fed and look at you, you’re fine!”. Our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations had a whole heap of problems. Their babies were seperated from them in hospital wards, which seriously affected their milk supply, and they had all this uncontrolled propaganda telling them how formula was basically the best thing for their babies. When formula really took over after the second world war, this coincided with a huge upgrade to our healthy care system, sewage systems etc which made us healthier as a whole – we couldn’t see the effect of formula on babies, through the general improved health of the nation. At the same time, TV and radio were spreading the word of this wonderful ‘medicinal’ formula milk, and nurses and doctors were handing it out to new mums – so hey, if the professionals endorse it, it must be the best thing, right?

God knows it’s none of my business how you feed your baby, and I support my mums in class whatever their choices. But more importantly than that, I support them to look into their options, and to understand their choice.

Generally, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But if, with hindsight, we regret a decision we made in haste, without understanding our options, then it becomes a plague.



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