If you’re easily offended or like a good fight, now might be a good time to look away. I’m talking about the World War 3 of parenting: breast vs bottle.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I also want to talk about lactivism – that word that raises heckles, and shouts of ‘nazi’ and bully and so on – and unethical companies.

This week the rumblings have been especially bitter. Nuby ran a Facebook competition offering bottles, which caused a fuss, rightly, as it contravenes the WHO codes. They then changed the offer to a breastpump, which personally I have no problem with, but the fighting that followed on their fan page was… well… disheartening, and became something akin to fishwives on corners slinging mud.

I was catching up on my desperately neglected Google Reader and came across a post by Dagmar Bleasdale in which she discussed the Similac (a formula company) Application which is said to help with breastfeeding – which I agree is undermining and misleading. Her post was balanced, fair, and not once accusatory or derogatory towards formula feeding MOTHERS, yet in the comment section she was thoroughly bashed for being anti formula feeding mothers. This is sadly common. It’s impossible to mention any of those four phrases without someone getting angry.

The problem as I see it is this:

  • Some mothers breastfeed, and believe, rightly, that it is biologically, emotionally, and physiologically the best thing to do. In most cases that is correct. (Yes, There are exceptions: when a mother is on drugs for, i.e. depression. Or if a mother is in the 5% of the planet that are physically unable to breastfeed, or is hating it so much that she develops negative feelings towards her child)
  • Some mothers, 5% of all mothers, are unable to breastfeed. For their babies, formula is literally a life saver (and in my opinion should be available on prescription), although I’d personally use donated milk instead.
  • Some mothers choose not to breastfeed. And this is where, in my view, the problem comes in. If a mother makes an educated decision not to breastfeed, if she’s had real information on the dangers of formula (the ingredients, increased SIDS risk, long term health risks etc.) and chooses to formula feed instead of breastfeed, then that is her right. It is her right, her responsibility and her privilege, just as it is mine to parent my child the way I see fit. That mother has learned about it, weighed up the risk versus benefits and decided that it is what’s best for her, for her family and for her child. That shouldn’t be grounds for anyone to attack her.
  • Where the problem comes in from a lactivist perspective, is not with mothers choosing to formula feed. It’s with mothers being lied to, conned, tricked and deceived into failing. I chose the word failing very carefully here. A mother who chooses to formula feed is not a failure, but an adult making a choice. A mother who is duped into formula feeding is failed while doing the best with the information she had at hand. It is the system that has failed her.

So what am I talking about?

  • When a company like Nestle, for example, takes an employee, dresses them up in a nurses uniform, and sends them out into a poor, uneducated society with just enough formula to ensure a mother’s milk supply will dry up while her child is supping on the ‘nutritionally better’ infant formula, thereby trapping her into formula feeding for the duration of that child’s babyhood, they have failed mothers.But, Nestle don’t stop with the poor and uneducated. They also have ‘milk nurses’ in regular hospitals, walking around giving out samples to tired, uncertain, vulnerable new mothers at a time most crucial to the establishment of the breastfeeding relationship.
  • When a company like Nestle commissions a ship to go up and down the Amazon river, peddling junk food and infant formula to people who don’t know better, in smaller, ‘more affordable’ sizes, they have failed mothers.(I’ve mentioned Nestle, but other companies have similar tactics.)
  • When formula companies bring out follow on milk, a duplicate of infant formula with a bit of iron and vitamin C added, in an attempt to circumvent the WHO code while still promoting their brands, they are deceiving and failing mothers. (No child needs follow on milk. It’s simply a way of making brands known while not advertising infant formula. Before the ’80’s, when the WHO codes came into existance, follow on milk had  never been heard of.)
  • When true lactivists become angry it is usually at companies failing mothers – mothers who are new to this, who are scared, uncertain, faced with a barrage of information, don’t have the support of communities of women who have been breastfeeding for centuries, have mothers and aunts and in-laws who still believe the lies of their generation with regards to childcare and specifically formula.

That’s not to say that’s true of everyone. I’ve heard lactivists say some pretty hurtful things to formula feeding mothers, and I’ve heard formula feeders say equally harsh and hurtful things to breastfeeders. Unfortunately for people in both camps, feelings run really high. The best way to get a formula feeder’s goat is to tell them they are lazy/uncaring/bad mothers who didn’t try hard enough. The best way to retaliate is to say that breastfeeders are abusing their children, or worse, (my personal non-favourite): that your attempt at sharing facts about breastfeeding/milk, is a personal attack on person xyz, or an attempt to make them feel guilty. And so the battle rages on. Inefficiently, with no goal, no purpose, no positive result for either, endlessly. And who wins the battle?

The formula feeding mothers who are guilted, left with doubts as to their choices and feeling undermined in their parenting (except for the confident ones who brand themselves ‘fearless formula feeders’ or ‘proud formula feeders’)?

The breastfeeders who are left smarting about their apparent child abuse, ‘nazi’ tendencies (and by the way, if you’ve ever set foot in a concentration camp, that’s not an insult you’d throw at anyone) and bullish ways?

Vigeland Statue in Oslo, NorwayNo. The only winners are the very companies we should be rallying against! Not only do they have more free press, advertising and media than probably anyone else in the parenting world, but with every fight you have FF mothers raging and vehemently asserting their right to rush out and buy formula. You have BF mothers stressed and worked up (and probably less able to produce milk) and those who were at the beginning stages, neither formula or breast activists, simply trying to find help and information, losing milk supply, finding themselves in the category of those who think they couldn’t breastfeed because they weren’t supported but rather lost their supply in the battle to recruit them!

While “why can’t we all just get along?” is a massive cop-out statement, in my view, I do think we should be working together. We should be demanding healthy formula options from companies for those that want or need it. Healthy formula, with real regulations, and real quality control checks.

We should be stopping unethical practices. We should cry out against the lies (gold standard? really?) so that mothers can make educated and informed decisions. We should be demanding better support for breastfeeding mothers. We should be shouting and screaming for some of the money that goes into advertising formula (in the UK, formula companies spend about £20 per baby on “educational material”, while the NHS spends roughly 14p per baby on “marketing”  breastfeeding) to go into supporting breastfeeding for those who want to, and so that those who wish they could have, or could have for longer can be supported next time too.

In the UK, formula companies spend about £20 per baby on “educational material”, while the NHS spends roughly 14p per baby on “marketing” breastfeeding.

But we can’t do anything, and we can’t make a difference at all, while we’re fighting each other.

When a lion cub is threatened, the lioness is at her most deadly. A mother is no different. Instead of focusing our energy on the threat from other mothers, focus it on the companies that are playing us against each other, taking us for fools, and getting away with it.

Remove the label, ladies. Get off the street corners. Be women, be mothers. Heal through love, support and nurturing. Share information, give gentle advice and guidance, show your willingness to help if someone has questions.

Formula feeders (for lack of a different collective noun): Every discussion on breastfeeding or the benefits of breastmilk is not, in fact, an accusation of you or a slight on your parenting ability. Breast milk is actually just that amazing that its worth talking about over and over and over again, mainly because so many people know so little about breastmilk. For me, at least, it’s about sharing knowledge, and with it, power.

Lactivists: remember that lactation activism is about doing something useful – writing, lobbying, boycotting. It is not about attacking other mothers. Unfortunately we’re firmly entrenched in this war, but someone has to make the first move toward reconciliation.

Lead by example, act in love, in kinship and in sisterhood.


Lactivism, Breast Feeding, Bottle Feeding, Formula And Mothers At War

  1. I love this post!

    I’ve had the pleasure of being friends with two women during their breastfeeding and bottle feeding experiences. One of whom was very forward in her opinions of breastfeeding and the other who wasnt supported enough to breastfeed and still feels guilty about not breastfeeding. Needless to say, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with both ladies. This post says everything I have been trying to say to them for months!

    My own feelings on the matter are that the mother needs to make the best decision for herself and her baby at that time. If mum is totally exhausted and in pain then maybe breastfeeding isnt the best option for her. I dont think that anyone could say that a stressed out mum is best for baby.

    I also think that there has been so much press about Breast is Best here in the UK that there is a real problem with bottle feeding mums feeling guilty. I agree that breastfeeding is a fabulous option but the materials I have seen in my Antenatal clinic definitely encourage new and vulnerable mums to feel guilty about bottle feeding. We need to let mums make the best decision for them and make sure that the people that are supposed to support them are well educated in ALL the options. Unbiased information is the way to go!

    Anywho, I appear to have found a soapbox for myself. 🙂

    1. @Sleepy Kitty, Hello, and thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I’m really pleased the post held meaning for you!

      I agree that mums need to decide what’s best for them – what I wish though, is that they had all information at their disposal, and SUPPORT to make sure their decision was based on truth. For example, the number of mums that have said to me ‘I had to give up at six weeks because my milk dried up’, well, it makes me cry. I want to tell them ‘ no, darling, your milk didn’t dry up – it stopped reservoiring and became supply and demand.’ But how do you do that without potentially really upsetting them. My view is that at the risk of upsetting them, you HAVE to tell them gently so that they know for next time round. And can tell other mothers the same thing, rather than reinforcing the wrong message (i.e. yes, I know, my milk dried up at six weeks too – there’s nothing you can do about it.)

      On your last point, I really struggle (always, not just because you said it! 🙂 ) There are SO MANY more mums that formula feed than breast feed, so really, ‘breast is best’ as a campaign, CANNOT POSSIBLY be working. I agree that success through guilt is no good – but I guess formula companies play on the exact same thing, just a different side to the same coin. And they are clear winners – but with what 200x the budget per child, it’s no surprise, is it. (is that right – my maths suck. 14p vs £20)

      Thanks for your thought provoking comment!

  2. I breast fed my son for 14 months. He is 8 now, but he rarely gets sick, and he has been a happy, loving child. If I ever had another child, I would definitely breast feed again. I work from my home anyway as a web designer, so it was convenient. I knew when I was pregnant with him that I was going to breast feed. In fact, he had no problems latching on nearly a couple hours after I gave birth to him. It endeared him to me and will always be a memory I will never forget.

    I am not really fond of all the formulas out there on the shelf. They smell nasty and frankly, I would never feed it to any child. Some of the companies produce formula containing honey, which is strongly discouraged to be given to children under the age of 2. It can potentially cause health issues, at least from what I remember my pediatrician said.

    I do not see why people were so up in arms over a giveaway. It is one of those things that people can choose to enter, ignore or go about their merry way. While I would not enter, I definitely think the company has every right to have a contest. Unless it was really vulgar, then hey…that is a different story. There are too many people with a lot of time on their hands complaining about anything and everything.

    1. @Nile, Hi Nile, Thanks for commenting. I guess the reason people were so up in arms was because of the contravention of the WHO codes of advertising bottles etc. Sadly, it does make a difference, and in countries where the WHO codes are enforced, breastfeeding rates are much much higher than here.

      I agree about formula though. I don’t even like powdered milk, so it’s not something I would want to drink, myself.

  3. I really appreciated this article. For me (in the US) the issue was the hospital and pediatrician more than formula companies. I was given a container of formula and I did keep it in case I ever needed it (it was never opened) but that had no effect on my choosing to breastfeed.

    I knew I wanted to breastfeed since I was a young girl. However, due to faulty advice from doctors, I had a plethora of problems. To make a long story short, nursing started off poorly at the hospital. Most nurses didn’t know how to show new mothers what to do (my daughter had jaundice so she would barely try and would sleep through feedings if allowed). We made it though. I had to pump for about two weeks and bottle feed, then go through the insanely trying process of breaking nipple confusion.

    However, what really caused the most problems was my daughter’s pediatrician with seemingly no working knowledge of breastfeeding. As a new mother, I had no idea how faulty her advice was until I did more of my own research. I was told to feed her every four hours. Four hours. Now tell me what newborn thrives on being nursed every four hours. I can only imagine all of the crying and frustration (and possible drying up) that could have been prevented.

    Later, the same doctor recommended supplementing with formula because my daughter was fussy when nursing and (she ate very quickly) often nursed less than the doctor’s recommended thirty minutes per session. Note: may daughter was showing NO signs of malnutrition or dehydration. I just ignored the doctor and started nursing her more often to make up for abbreviated sessions.

    Basically, that I think is that doctors are not educated enough and push formula like crazy. What mother would say no to a doctor? Of course I did, but that is only because I had been obsessively reading about breastfeeding and knew her error.

    1. @Rebekah, Rebekah, thanks for sharing your story. I think you are right – peads often aren’t clued up on breastfeeding at all. After all, it’s easier to tell a mother how to mix formula than it is to spend time helping her breastfeed. Secondly, if it’s anything like birthing, which I’m pretty sure it is, I read some crazy statistic that something like 80% of pead’s leave med school never having witnessed a vaginal birth. I’m guessing that’s the same group who also never had antyhing to do with breastfeeding training. Which is desperately sad. And don’t be fooled – there’s big money for marketing companies in keeping sweet with doctors! 🙁

      As for your question, you’re right. We’re taught to trust doctors from childhood – infancy, in fact. So most people never think to question them.

      Well done, Rebekah, for following your maternal instincts and trusting in yourself.

  4. Never has the phrase ‘hit the nail on the head’ been so perfectly applied to something.

    Thank you for this, what a brilliant article, summing up perfectly almost every feeling I have on the subject.

  5. Hi Luschka,
    I just found your post thanks to my Statcounter — thank you for mentioning my post! This is a great article.

    Yes, the more passionately I write about breastfeeding the more I get comments from formula-feeding moms who feel attacked even though I never even mention formula-feeding moms per se. I finally put a sentence in bold on my Breastfeeding page about this.

    I think it it every mom’s business what she ends up doing, and I would never want to make a formula-feeding mom feel bad, but I’m very vocal about disliking formula-making companies who are using unethical, sneaky tactics towards moms who are struggling with breastfeeding and vulnerable. It’s just not right.


    1. @Dagmar ~ Dagmar’s momsense, Thanks Dagmar – I actually linked to you again today! Your post inspired me 😉

      I saw a VBAC youtube video today, where the woman said what happened in her first birth, then went on to show her second, and share what an awesome experience her VBAC was and how happy she was.

      The very first comment was from someone saying she had an emergency c-section and didn’t need to be made to feel guilty or like she’d done a bad thing having the c-section.

      The video had been about HER, HER birth experience, and HER happiness. Yet someone had gone on to youtube, found her video, watched it, and then complained at her. I don’t get it.

      Anyway. Thank you for your comment and for such an inspirational post.

  6. Thank you, and brava!

    I am still endlessly amazed at the bitter war between mothers: breast vs formula, carrier vs stroller, daycare vs work at home, EC vs diapers…

    I swear, there are mothers out there who kill their children for everything from not napping to having a potty accident to dancing in front of the television, and all these warring mothers have nothing better to do than attack each other for being the best moms we can be?


    Wow. I agree with you; we need to get over ourselves, stop fighting over stupid things, and help each other and help the mothers who really need it.


  7. What a totally brilliant post! It must have been a difficult one to get right, brilliant x

  8. thank you for writing this – an excellent article.

    I come across many mothers who believed that their milk was inadequate or they had dried up (ie when the engourgment stage ended) and because they were inadequately supported and just had formula pressed to them by the “experts” in front of them they switched from breast to bottle. Not out of choice, but out of fear and misinformation. The system failed them.

    My Dr even tried stopping me from breast feeding because I had a poorly baby – didn’t bother to find out what was wrong with her – just blamed my milk for her lack of growth. I had to fight for my right to feed her and for a diagnosis of her problem. That shouldn’t be necessary to fight for, but it is. I know someone in similar position that submitted to the Dr’s pressure and switched to formula – her baby got even more sick very rapidly and was finally examined properly and treated. Why didn’t our Drs examine the child first before blaming our milk? An inadequately educated Dr?

    Lets press together for truth and accurate information, not only in the media and on the shelves but also in our health care system, and for proper support of each and every mothers choice.

    1. @Angela Coles (Toucan Scraps), Thanks Angela – I appreciate your comment. Your comment is exactly the reason why I write my blog and why I write so much about breastfeeding. Sadly, we ‘miss’ more people that we ‘reach’ but at least we’re trying!

      You’re absolutely right about the system failing people. And that’s the sad bit that really gets me down. Thanks so much again for commenting.

Comments are closed.