COMMENTARY | When I gave birth to my daughter four years ago, I made it very clear to everyone around me that I intended to breastfeed her. Even still, nurses continuously offered to feed my daughter for me, and I was sent home from the hospital with free bottles and formula. Well-meaning friends and family members constantly suggested that I keep these, just in case I was too tired to feed her or someone else wanted to. Even after making my intentions clear, I felt like I needed to defensively fight for my right to nurse my daughter.
Knowing this, it's not surprising that only one-third of moms who intend to breastfeed actually succeed in nursing their babies, with two-thirds fail by the time the baby is three months old. According to ABC News, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control found that while 85 percent of mothers plan to exclusively breastfeed their babies, only 32 percent succeed in doing so. Along with other organizations such as the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC believes that hospital and cultural practices are primarily to blame. Simply put: nursing women aren't getting the support they need and deserve.
While offers of free formulas and gentle suggestions of giving the baby a bottle to "supplement" nursing may come with good intentions from hospital staff and friends of the mother, they consistently undermine the mom's intentions. When a sleep-deprived, hormonal mother is reminded at every turn that bottle-feeding is an option-- as if the thought never occurred to her-- it's easy for her to give in to temptation and give the baby a bottle.
Formula companies are well aware that these simple steps to undermine a nursing mother's intentions spell profit for manufacturers of synthetic breast milk. Even while acknowledging that a mother's milk is best, formula companies readily distribute free samples to pregnant and nursing women. This occurs despite stern warnings from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, labeling these practices "unfriendly" to babies and mothers.
When introduced early, such as in the first week home from the hospital, any amount of infant formula-- even just to "try it"-- dramatically reduces rates of breastfeeding success. Newborns easily experience so-called nipple confusion, preferring the ease of drinking from a bottle over the relative difficulty of latching to a breast. Early introduction of formula also tends to reduce a mother's milk supply, to the point that it may diminish rapidly in a time in which it should increase.
These patterns aren't inconsequential. We know that the risks of formula-feeding instead of breastfeeding can't be taken lightly. According to scientific data compiled by La Leche League International, formula-feeding is associated with a higher risk of ear infection, SIDS, obesity, colic, pneumonia, learning disability, diabetes, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer. No matter what, breast will always be best, and formula-- while an acceptable substitute-- does harm the health of our children.
There will always, of course, be women who can't breastfeed, whether for physical, psychological, or situational reasons. We don't need to instill guilt in women who can't nurse their babies-- that is never the answer. The first step and biggest step in ending the overuse of formula is to support women who can and do choose the healthiest options for their babies-- and that means ditching the free formula samples and providing unconditional support for their decision.
Juniper Russo is a freelance writer, health advocate, and dedicated mom living in Chattanooga, TN.