Babies are the collateral damage in the lactivist war on formula

White Bear With Bandages

It’s inexplicable on its face.

Tens of thousands of babies are readmitted to the hospital each year for breastfeeding complications at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Exclusive breastfeeding is now the leading cause of newborn hospital readmission. Not a single lactivist organization or public health organization — not La Leche League, not the CDC, not the World Health Organization — denies this. Yet none of them are doing anything about it.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactation professionals hate formula more than they love babies.[/pullquote]

Why? Because injured babies are considered acceptable collateral damage in the lactivist war on formula companies.

Don’t believe me? Try to have a discussion with a lactivist, professional or lay, without the lactivist immediately mentioning formula companies, referencing the Nestle scandal of the 1970’s and accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being in the pay of the formula companies themselves.

I guarantee that when this blog post is discussed in the lactivist community, lactivists will reflexively — with no evidence — accuse me of shilling for formula manufacturers.

Wait, what? You thought breastfeeding is about what’s good for babies and mothers? That’s what lactation professionals and lactivists say, but watch what they do. They are engaged in a massive effort to erase from public awareness the tens of thousands of babies and countless mothers harmed by aggressive breastfeeding promotion.

Their calculus is simple — and ugly. They view themselves as generals in a war on formula; companies are the enemy and babies are the soldiers unwittingly drafted into their armies. Generals knowingly send soldiers to death and permanent injury “for the greater good.” Lactation professionals do the same thing with babies and mothers; they knowingly send them into harm “for the greater good” of depriving the formula industry of profit.

It certainly isn’t because breastfeeding is so obviously beneficial. Indeed, in industrialized countries the benefits of breastfeeding term babies are so trivial that they cannot be detected in large populations. Ask a lactation professional to show you how many lives have been saved by exclusively breastfeeding in the US — as I asked Melissa Bartick, MD several years ago — and you will get a response like I got.

Commenting on piece by Dr. Bartick’s on the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine blog, I asked her directly:

Where is the evidence that term babies lives has been saved? Where is the evidence that the diseases you insist are decreased by breastfeeding are actually decreasing as a result of breastfeeding? Where are the billions of healthcare dollars you claimed would be saved as the breastfeeding rates rose?

Her response:

…To my knowledge, no one has actually dug it up yet. It’s not fair to say “it doesn’t exist.”

So Dr. Bartick acknowledges that the evidence for major benefits of breastfeeding DOESN’T exist.

What does exist is deep and abiding anti-corporatist bias against formula companies.

Make no mistake, Nestle and other formula companies DID engage in unethical behavior in Africa by luring women away from breastfeeding even though they lacked access to clean water with which to prepare formula. The result was the death of tens of thousands of babies.

But what got lost in the righteous anger toward Nestle’s behavior is that there was NEVER anything wrong with formula; the problem was the water used to prepare it. No matter; the goal was to punish Nestle and other formula companies and the best way to do that was demonize formula itself.

The Ten Steps of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative only make sense if their primary purpose is to punish formula companies:

There is no evidence that judicious formula supplementation is harmful to the breastfeeding relationship; the ban on formula supplementation only makes sense as punishment for formula companies.

There is no evidence that nipple confusion is real. The ban on artificial nipples only makes sense as a punishment for formula companies.

There is no evidence that insufficient breastmilk is rare; indeed the evidence shows that it is common. The insistence only makes sense as a punishment for formula companies.

There is no evidence that an occasional bottle of formula given to allow the mother to get a good night’s rest or to have some time to herself will harm an ongoing breastfeeding relationship. Insisting that it will only makes sense as a punishment for formula companies.

I have no love for formula companies, but they are hardly the most immoral businesses out there. Letting babies starve in order to punish formula companies makes as much sense as letting adults starve to punish cereal manufacturers for sugary cereals, farmers for E.coli tainted vegetables and meat packing companies for salmonella infected chicken.

The sad fact is that lactation professionals hate formula more than they love babies. As far as they are concerned (and they are best judged on their actions, not their words) babies are acceptable collateral damage in the lactivist war on formula.

But innocent people are never acceptable collateral damage in efforts to rein in unscrupulous companies. Lactation professionals have to make up their minds: do they truly hate formula companies more than they love babies?