Recently, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding & Inequalities (APPGIFI) ran an inquiry on the costs of infant formula to families in the UK and the impact that buying formula may be having on the families health, well-being and finances. As well as seeking submissions from a number of stakeholders including people like us here at Infant Feeding Support UK who support families in relation to infant feeding, the APPGIFI were keen to hear from families themselves. We were grateful to receive a number of responses from parents which we submitted to the inquiry. In particular, the following letter from an anonymous Mum stood out to us as it encompassed many of the themes that came up in other individual submissions. We felt it was important to share and are doing so with the permission of the wonderful lady who wrote it.

We don’t live in a vacuum. All foods and labour are affected by the market. Yes, formula costs money because companies produce it, like any other food we buy in the shops e.g. bread/fruit/biscuits. We are not paid for the work of establishing and sustaining breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding often involves between 8 – 12 feeds lasting between half an hour and an hour each – a pretty long shift (not to mention cracked nipples and sleep deprivation). Yes, formula companies advertise but the strongest message received by women in the UK is that the ideal mother breastfeeds. Setting up an ideal or a norm that plays on fears in order to exploit someone’s labour or sell them something sounds like pretty standard capitalism to me.

I dreaded giving my son formula. I did give it to him out of necessity as he lost 10% of his birth weight but also continued to breastfeed when it was utter agony and lied to people about how much formula I was giving him because I’d “given up” on giving him “the best”. I had very much received the message from breastfeeding classes and books that breastfeeding = ideal mother. When I failed to meet the ‘biological norm’ I felt less of a mother and also less of a woman.

I don’t think breastfeeding is immune to negative impact of consumer capitalism. The neo-liberalist trait of perpetuating impossible ideals to “sell” something or exploit labour is there in breastfeeding culture just as it is with beauty standards or formula. We work for free because that’s what ‘good mums’ do. We buy pumps because that’s what ‘good mums’ do. Some of us who are privileged enough hire Lactation Consultants to solve breastfeeding problems. We buy pillows, books, tops. Personally, I’m not sure which one [breastfeeding or formula feeding] works out more expensive. While of course I don’t want to line big companies pockets, I also realise that we have to do that every day when we buy our household food/clothes/train tickets. But in those cases I don’t get told I’m any less of a human for it. Dare to formula feed and you’ve quit the best choice, sold out or been seduced. That’s not empowering. But the message from breastfeeding promotion seems to be that empowered women work, suffer and bleed for free thank you very much.

By demonising the formula industry and putting breastfeeding on a pedestal, it misses the point. In reality this only contributes to more emotional and physical pain. Women need unbiased information and practical solutions when breastfeeding isn’t working – both to succeed at breastfeeding and to avoid the guilt and shame that so often comes when a bottle is all that is left after weighing up what is right for your family. Shame only becomes part of the equation because breastfeeding or meeting the ‘biological norm’ is made out to be the gold standard.

Currently formula companies are free to make spurious claims about the benefits of their products because there is a vacuum of information from trusted sources available to families. If your Health Care Provider over-plays the benefits of breastfeeding, talks about infant formula only as a risk and leaves you feeling shame and guilt then you cannot expect them to give trustworthy and impartial advice on formula. You have to rely on the formula companies. When I asked about using infant formula milk with my son I was told that I shouldn’t have it in the house, it was like crack [cocaine]. My husband had to rush to the shop and panic buy whatever was in there. We stuck with it because we’d heard that if you change it will hurt them. We used Aptamil and followed the advice on the packet religiously as we were so anxious about doing it wrong; there was no information anywhere else. The only cost impact was that we tried to use powder as it was cheaper. I was terrified when using powdered formula and so when the amount of formula feeds I was giving reduced, I just switched back to ready-made. I asked a friend about making bottles because I was too ashamed to ask at what was then called a ‘breast feeding cafe’.  The only combo feeding advice that I could find was on the Tommy Tippee website or KellyMom but the latter was geared at re-establishing exclusive breastfeeding. So all in all my decision was made, not through the advertising of formula companies, but through fear and rejection from the breastfeeding culture.

We can all change this and make the difference by supporting families in their choices; by pointing to unbiased information (both for breastfeeding and formula). In doing so we are not supporting the formula industry or breastfeeding advocates, we are supporting families. If governments, policy architects, health care initiatives, healthcare service providers and companies won’t provide the support that we need, we have to create a culture of real support ourselves. And actually that’s what most mums do. Playing into a narrative of a ‘breast vs bottle divide’ denies most women’s reality which is that we do a bit of both and don’t really care how others choose to feed their babies. Also, playing into that divide helps to perpetuate both the myth that good mums work for free to breastfeed or, as many formula companies would have you believe, good mums spend the most on infant formula.

Heartfelt thanks to this Mum, and to all the other parents who responded to the inquiry. Infant Feeding Support UK will continue to champion the cause of safe, inclusive, science based infant feeding information for all families regardless of whether your baby drinks breastmilk, formula or a little bit of both #ISupportYou #bottlesboobsortubes