Milk Dud or Milk Stud?

>> Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The following is a guest post by my friend Maren from Dori's Diner. Maren and her family moved in to Maryland about the time that we were deciding to move out, so we didn't get to know each other well until we both started reading each other's blogs. Now, I consider her one of my best blogging buddies, and I'm excited to get to share her thoughts with you today.

Choosing to breastfeed my kids wasn’t much of a choice. After all, I knew the benefits, both physical & financial. For instance, I knew that infant formula was an imperfect substitute for breast milk, especially considering that the exact properties of breast milk aren’t yet even known. I also knew that breast milk plays an important role in the growth of an infant’s immune system and is one of the main sources of germ protection for the vulnerable first 6 months of life.

Monetarily, I knew that formula was pricey with an annual range of $648 to $2800 depending on the brand and type of formula used for the recommended first year of life compared to the negligible amount needed to increase a breastfeeding mother’s diet. And that’s not counting all the bottles, nipples, liners, etc used to deliver the formula.

As I became more environmentally aware, I realized that breastfeeding also fell into the category of being environmentally conscious. I first considered the cost of producing, marketing, and distributing the formula, as well as the cost of tending to the waste after feeding (plastic lids, cans, wrappers, and bottle liners, some of which are recyclable, and some which are not).

I also realized that as with most prepared foods, infant formula was subject to contaminations, sloppy handling techniques, and other biological hazards of the food industry. Considering that 99% of the formula market is produced by only three major brands: Nestle (Good Start), Abbott Labs (Similac), & Mead Johnson (Enfamil), I felt the twinge of fear that anyone feels when in the presence of a large oligopoly that likely does not carry out sustainable initiatives, even if they do give it lip-service.

Armed with all this information, I committed at the end of my first pregnancy to breastfeed my child for at least a year, as well as all future children. Four children later, I realized that simply choosing to breastfeed is not enough to make it happen.

The problems started immediately with a fussy little girl who refused to latch on. Later, anatomical problems were discovered, but at that point, I had resigned myself to formula and shelling out the big bucks for a year. When my second daughter appeared, we seemed to have bypassed some of the earlier issues, but ran into new ones that terminated our otherwise healthy breastfeeding relationship after just a few weeks. (Post-partum depression & poor health.)

Call me stubborn, but when I was pregnant with my third daughter, I was determined to stick it out for at least a few months, even if it meant pumping exclusively. Stubborn I might have been, but nothing compared to the will-power of daughter number three who was born early and small, and had trouble suckling from the breast. I pumped for 5 weeks, trying every few days to latch her on, until one night, when she was tired and hungry, but not frantic, she latched on and never looked back. I breastfed her for 14 months, when I finally weaned her.

What was the turning point? An ugly round of mastitis, a common breast-infection that some women are more prone to than others. Because breastfeeding, as opposed to pumping or formula feeding, is one of the best remedies for mastitis, I found myself even more committed to making it work. And this was despite many people’s insistence that I should quit and move to formula exclusively. Armed with confidence, I pumped with daughter number four for three weeks before she was able to latch on and nurse exclusively.

As I look forward to my fifth child, I realize a few important things:

  1. Breastfeeding is best, not just because of cost & physical benefits, and satisfying bond but also because of it’s sustainability within the environment and the marketplace.
  2. With adequate education, support, and ability, most women can breastfeed if that is what they desire. Ideally, most women would breastfeed if they were educated in the how-to’s and why’s of breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first 6-months (per WHO’s recommendation).
  3. Formula feeding is not ideal for a number of reasons, but is a necessary alternative for hose who cannot (for a number of varying reasons) breastfeed or must supplement. However, more sustainable alternatives need to be developed.
Some solutions that seem ideal include:
  • Breastfeeding exclusively for at least the first 6 months of the infant’s life. If necessary, using a pump and bottles to give the mother breaks to sleep, etc.
  • If this is not possible, or supplementation is needed, consider purchasing an organic formula (and supporting the companies that sell & distribute them) that is not produced by one of the big three companies, such as Earth’s Best or Bright Beginnings. If you’re ambitious, consider making your own formula!
  • Wet Nursing or Cross-Nursing: once accepted, these practices of temporarily nursing a friend or family member’s baby (cross-nursing) or hiring someone to nurse your baby long-term (wet nurse) have fallen by the wayside. Fear of disease & a pervasive sexual stigma tend to cause people in the Western world to cringe when thinking about nursing another’s baby. And yet both cross- and wet nursing are making a small comeback as more Western women are becoming aware of the many benefits of breast milk. Currently, the La Leche League discourages wet & cross-nursing for a number of reasons (including diminished milk supply in the birth mom, disease, etc), but there are still many women who have had successful shared nursing experiences. On a personal note, I used some of a very close friend’s frozen milk supply when working my third daughter to my breast. Of course, I knew this friend well enough to trust that her milk was clean and suitable for my newborn.
  • Banks: another suitable alternative to breastfeeding that is often used for infants that require breast milk but cannot get it from their mother. There are only 10 in the United States, mainly because of the social stigma and the enormous cost of collecting, screening, pasteurizing, and delivering the donated human milk.
There is no perfect world and certainly no one-size-fits-all solution to the many different lifestyles each mother leads. I also don’t consider myself a breast-feeding radical—I know firsthand how very difficult it can be for so many different reasons, and excess guilt isn’t healthy. However, I believe that an educated woman will find many good reasons to work at a satisfactory breast-feeding relationship, something that is good for mom & baby and the environment as well.

Photo by Daquella manera

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Maren Hansen August 18, 2009 at 9:44 AM  

Excellent editing, Erin. You make me look good... :) Now wish me luck on baby numero cinqo!

Anna August 18, 2009 at 10:07 AM  

Great post Maren. I agree with all you have said. I struggled to keep my milk supply and six months was the longest I went. Each time my milk dried up I was devastated. I wish I'd gone and got more professional help to get my supply up. My pediatricians never had very good advice. They just told me to supplement with formula. Anyway, good info.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper August 18, 2009 at 9:03 PM  

@Maren - I may have made it look prettier, but it was already a great post!

Elizabeth August 19, 2009 at 7:45 PM  

I want to thank you for being informative and not judgmental. I am a mother who chooses not to breast feed and I have been told a number of times that I am a bad mother and that I should not be blessed with children. I am pregnant with baby number two and I love my children. So again thank you for the info.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper August 19, 2009 at 9:29 PM  

@Elizabeth - You're a great mother! Don't listen to anyone who says differently!

Maren Hansen August 23, 2009 at 11:48 AM  

What I think is sad about the whole controversy is people who do judge your parenting skillz by the simple fact of whether or not you breastfeed. There are so many right ways to raise a child, and focusing on just the one thing is awfully narrow-minded. What I try and keep in mind is that either the person just has no other experience (i.e., it was easy for them to breastfeed, or they've never had kids!) or they are insecure enough to have to self-validate through censure of others. Either way, that person I guess deserves my sympathy and education. :) Thanks for the comments.

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