Claiming the formula industry is anti-breastfeeding is like claiming the birth control industry is anti-children

Birth Control Pills

It’s the central obsession at the heart of contemporary breastfeeding promotion, and it serves as a justification for the shaming tactics so beloved of lactivists.

It’s the fantasy that the formula industry is waging war on breastfeeding.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=””]Formula was not created as a substitute for breastfeeding; it was created to replace the raw animal milk women were already using as a substitute for breastfeeding.[/pullquote]

Don’t get me wrong; the formula industry is trying to make money. And, yes, decades ago they engaged in deceptive practices to convince women in developing countries to formula feed; but there was never a similar campaign in industrialized countries for a very simple reason — women couldn’t or wouldn’t breastfeed long before formula even existed.

Formula was not created as a substitute for breastfeeding; it was created to replace the raw animal milk women were already using as a substitute for breastfeeding.

As Jacqueline Wolf explains in the chapter Saving Babies and Mothers: Pioneering Efforts to Decrease Infant and Maternal Mortality, in the book Silent Victories: The History and Practice of Public Health in Twentieth Century:

The custom of feeding cows’ milk via rags, bottles, cans and jars to babies rather than putting them to the breast became increasingly common in the last quarter of the nineteenth century progressed… In 1912, disconcerted physicians complained bitterly that the breastfeeding duration rate had declined steadily since the mid-nineteenth century “and now it is largely a question as to whether the mother will nurse her baby at all. A 1912 survey in Chicago … corroborated the allegation. Sixty-one percent of those women fed their infants at least some cows’ milk within weeks of giving birth.

And the results were deadly:

The late nineteenth century urban milk supply killed tens of thousands of infants each year. Unpasteurized and unrefrigerated as it journeyed from rural dairy farmer to urban consumer for up to 72 hours. cows’ milk was commonly spoiled and bacteria-laden. Public health officials dramatically charged that in most U.S. cities, milk contained more bacteria than raw sewage …

Those death rates did not start falling until cows’ milk was replaced by infant formula, which more closely matches the composition of human milk, is uncontaminated and is very convenient to buy, store and use.

Breastfeeding, like most natural processes, has a high natural failure rate. Up to 15% of new mothers don’t make enough milk to fully nourish a growing baby, especially in the first few days after birth. In addition, breastfeeding can be difficult, painful, frustrating and incompatible with women’s work outside the home.

Infant formula finally made the widespread use of breastmilk supplements safe. It’s no different from birth control. The manufacturers of the Pill didn’t need to convince women to use birth control; they simply made birth control safe and effective.

The similarities don’t end there.

Why do formula manufacturers advertise? For the same reason that birth control manufacturers advertise: to claim market share.

Manufacturers of various formulations of The Pill, condoms and diaphragms aren’t engaged in a war on children. Women themselves WANT to regulate their fertility. They don’t want to subject themselves to a dozen pregnancies across a reproductive life and they don’t want to raise a dozen children. No one needs to convince women to prevent pregnancy; the market for birth control encompasses just about every woman of reproductive age in every country. The issue for women is not IF they are going to use birth control, but WHICH form of birth control they are going to use. That’s why purveyors of birth control advertise.

Formula manufacturers advertise for the same reason. The issue is not IF women are going to use formula; many will choose to do so regardless. The issue is which brand to use. It’s the same reason why formula companies give free samples of their product. Contrary to the lactivist fantasy that formula samples are aimed at seducing women away from breastfeeding, the industry is not worried about IF women will use formula; it’s concerned about WHICH formula brand they are going to use.

Lactivists have used the fantasy of formula manufacturers warring against breastfeeding to justify their tactics of grossly exaggerating the benefits of breastfeeding, pretending there are “risks” to formula feeding, invoking shaming language to pressure women into breastfeeding, and employing Orwellian programs like the “Baby Friendly Hospital Inititiative” to force new mothers to breastfeed. They believe they are waging war against the formula industry; the reality is that they waging war against women’s bodily autonomy.

Women use formula for the same reason that women use birth control; it allows them to determine when and how they use their reproductive organs. Lactivists oppose formula for the same reason that religious fundamentalists oppose birth control. Fundamentalists believe no woman should have sex unless there is a chance for pregnancy; lactivists believe no woman should give birth unless she plans to breastfeed.

In both cases, what is at stake is not the financial health of corporations, but the rights of women.