The most recent formula shortage crisis is not just a baby milk crisis, rather it is a women’s health care crisis that dates back to the last century. Let’s pause for a moment and take a look at what transpired to bring us here today.
After WWII, with American women joining the work force in large numbers, formula manufacturers saw an emerging market for their product. With promises to new mothers that formula was “better than the breast” – and no scientific evidence to back this claim – our grandmothers were assured they could leave their babies in good conscious with this new “milk”, and work outside the home.
Birthing traditions also underwent a change, from home births to hospital births, where the standard became to sedate the laboring mother. My own mother was tied down during labor, then separated from her baby for immediate feeding with formula. Babies were isolated in hospital nurseries to be gazed at through glass windows from afar. This was repeated through successive generations of women and became the “new” cultural birthing norm – “sedate, separate and feed formula.”
The market-driven distribution of infant formula directly resulted in the loss of breastfeeding nationally, and world-wide. It was suddenly deemed “old-fashioned”, and mothers were uniformly discouraged from breastfeeding. My own mother was told during her very normal, post-birth engorgement, when the maternal milk volume rises over 72 hours to meet the needs of her baby, that her milk had “gone bad”. She was given the injection to “dry up” her milk production without her consent. Her breasts were bound, and she was sent home with formula for her baby. Simply stated, due to an absence of knowledge about human breast milk production, my mother’s right to breastfeed me was taken from her.
The myth that newly delivered mothers had “no milk” for their babies was born.
So, when we talk about women’s health care today, what is missing is an informed discussion of the historical and sociological context of breastfeeding. By 1981, The World Health Organization recognized the use of formula was never intended to eclipse breastfeeding. They set up an “International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes” permitting the availability of formula “when medically indicated”, but forbidding direct advertisement or free distribution from health care providers to new parents. This “Code” was passed by the WHO member nations with a vote of 118 to 1.
Although the Code is renewed annually, the United States was, and still is, the one dissenting country having never signed onto the mandate of not directly marketing formula to new parents. Formula manufacturers still market the promise that they are there to provide “safe” milk for our babies “in case you cannot breastfeed.”
Having a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Biochemistry, and working over 22 years as an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, I still have parents asking me “What’s the difference between breastmilk and formula?” Therein lies the crux of this debate. Breast milk is a biological imperative, your birthright as a woman. It is also “time-dependent.” For anyone to respond to the current formula crisis by saying “Try breastfeeding! It’s free and available on demand!” indicates the depth of the lack of education for women about how our bodies create milk for our babies. Rather than dividing us, all women should come together and unite behind breastfeeding education as a woman’s health care issue.
Unfortunately, decades of unchecked formula marketing here in the United States, combined with the cultural bias against the breast has cast a very deep shadow of doubt on all women -- that a we cannot provide “enough” milk for our babies at birth and beyond. As a professional, I have witnessed the grief, pain and illogic from having breastfeeding misunderstood and mismanaged post birth. It is the “elephant in the room”- that no one is willing to acknowledge today. The ultimate barrier to breastfeeding is not sore nipples, nighttime nursing, endlessly hours pumping or returning to employment outside the home. It is the lack of governmental and societal respect for women that would empower us as new mothers – to attend to all aspects of our lives – maternal as well as professional.
Traditionally, new mothers were surrounded by experienced, knowledgeable “wise women” – mothers, sisters aunts, grandmothers -- to guide them with trust, love and compassion. They did not doubt the strength of their bodies as women. They fed and nurtured new mothers so they could learn how to feed and nurture their babies. Mothering the new mother was basic human survival that honored the fourth trimester as the enormous transformative time it is for all women.
This is where The Pump Station steps in. With professional, highly trained consultants, we represent the “family” that you have lost.
We have counseled breast cancer survivors, mothers with breast augmentations and/or reductions, and even adoptive mothers to successfully breastfeed. How? Because as women we believe it is every woman’s birthright to be accurately informed about the strength of her body to feed her baby. Normalizing the science of human breast milk physiology as part of our biology courses in secondary schools and colleges, would be a good place to start. Then each of us could make an “informed” choice as women before even thinking about having babies.
As professional lactation consultants, deflecting misinformation and mismanagement is our life’s work. This is what we do. We work for the unheard voices in this cacophony – we work for your babies. We’re here to help you meet the challenges of breastfeeding today.
Quite simply, you would not be here without a mother’s milk in your ancestral past. Every one of us has descendants who breastfed – as that was the human norm. We are, after all, mammals. All mammals provide milk for their babies.
It is time to “wake up” and come together as knowledgeable women for the future health of our infants. We have lost too much.
© Cynthia Epps, MS, IBCLC 2022