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.

Lactation professionals hate formula more than they love babies.

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?

  • Another first hand account of the harm LCs do to women and their babys.

    https://www.andiemitchell.com/i-fed-my-baby-formula-and-im-not-ashamed/

    She’s a food blogger I follow.

    • Heidi

      That nurse that told her a spit up was because formula doesn’t agree with their systems. . .gah, that makes mad. Babies spit up regardless. They have BABY digestive systems. I think it was pretty rare for my formula fed kid to spit up (I can’t recall a.specific incident of it happening but I can remember it being a thing.), but then again he was a slow and distracted eater so I doubt he overfilled his tummy. Honestly I think I would have traded more spit up over having to give him 2 oz. bottles every 2 hours until he started solids.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        A friend of mine has a story that her daughter knows well. When her daughter was a baby, like 1 month old, we were at their house for a New Year’s eve party. My friend had just nursed the baby, and I was holder her, and she went off with volcano spewage. I mean, projectile spewing.

        Totally breast fed, and totally spewing.

        • Nina Yazvenko

          Yup, happened to my breastfed baby too.

  • sheistolerable
    • Cartman36

      Wait…I thought the human race would have died out if they hadn’t been able to breastfeed. Its almost like humans have been inventing things to overcome the natural state for thousands of years. weird….

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      And they drank animal milk!

  • I just came across an article that showed banked breast milk is often deficient in zinc. I’m not quite sure why, but clearly mothers who use banked milk (for whatever reason) should be aware of this.

    • rational thinker

      Breast milk in general lacks vitamin D and a lot of mothers who breastfeed don’t even know it and the hospital lactation consultant is not very likely to even tell them.

      • PeggySue

        Iron, too, I think?

        • rational thinker

          yes I think so.

      • Nina Yazvenko

        My pediatrician prescribed Vitamin D drops at birth, and Vit-D and Iron drops at 6 months to us when I said that we were breastfeeding. She said that she has seen rickets in our community among breastfed babies.

    • Griffin

      And lets not mention the per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) (ie toxins) that accumulate in breast milk…

      It gets breastfeeding advocates very antsy… it’s quite funny to read the protestations

  • Anna

    Its not about formula companies, at least not just about the companies. I think Ive only ever seen one lactavist page that seemed to be (from a quick scroll) focused solely on the companies. No little snide comments, no “industrial powder”, no assumptions that formula feeding parents arent informed or that HCPs arent “educated”, no desperate attempts to normalise “boobin all day and night” and frame Mothers that work outside the home or arent willing to sacrifice everything as selfish bad Mothers. If it were truly about going after the companies only, formula feeding parents would feel safe to join in the fight. Formula shouldnt be more expensive to pay for influencers trips to Italy or handed out in low resource settings – totally agree on that. If your activism cant be done without harming women and babies its not really about the companies though, its just the socially acceptable way to “hate formula”.

    • fiftyfifty1

      I agree. Lactivism is not mainly motivated by opposition to formula companies. If that were the main motivator, then there would be no problem with homemade formula substitutes, earlier intro of solids, glucose water in the newborn days etc. but lactivists oppose all of those. Sure, they may say that it’s about the evil formula companies, but that’s just because telling the true reason “because we believe it is a mother’s duty to be willing to put her teat in her baby’s mouth 24/7” wouldn’t go over well.

  • rational thinker

    “lactation professionals hate formula more than they love babies” This is a very accurate perspective and a clever one. If mom does not believe that one drop of formula could harm her baby’s gut and put his health at risk for the rest of his life then the lactation consultant can’t make $300 to $400 dollars per visit. Of course not all lactation consultants behave this way but a large majority does and that needs to stop.

    • Griffin

      Wait – how MUCH are lactation consultants making per visit???

  • Brenna Goode

    Why would you throw the comment about not loving formula companies out there? Just as a bone to the lactivists? I love formula companies. Without them, my kids would have starved to death. Let’s face it, companies are made of people, and it’s PEOPLE driving the decisions, not companies. But the people in companies give us innovation, and awesome things like ways to keep babies from starving. And a dozen different types of formula when one doesn’t work out. And great stuff like pre-filled bottles for that 2 a.m. feeding.

    • demodocus

      I loved prefilled bottles! Useful for emergency top offs as well as 2 am snacks. Especially since when either kid woke up starving in the wee hours, I was much too groggy to really be of any damned use. Really, our daughter was far better off ff by semi-conscious daddy than our son was being bf’d by me as i inevitably fell asleep.