The Similac Recall and Why Breast is Not Always Best

6 years ago

I wrote two posts this week about breastfeeding in reaction to a post about the "breast is best" campaign: one titled, "Breast is Not Best" and the other titled "Breast Bitch." It was a week that at first seemed fairly quiet on the parenting wars front -- and then the Similac recall bomb was dropped. Any other week, my breastfeeding posts would have simply been my request to stop using supremacy language in regards to a bodily function that is outside a person's control. This week, it became a gathering spot to see, "see, see, breast is best!"

Though people who think that way have sort of missed the point.

If you have a healthy, full-term child with no known issues, and the mother has an ample milk supply and a desire to breastfeed, breast probably is best. I can't say that it is always best because I can think of women who are taking drugs that would cross into their breastmilk and look at the scenario I set up and say, "well, there's an example where breast isn't best." I can think of other scenarios -- such as the mother brings in the sole income and will miss out on pay even though her job itself is safeguarded -- and that doesn't even begin to touch on all the situations that don't match the first part of that statement.


But like so many things about parenting, the breast is best campaign comes from a place of privilege in so many ways. It's not just the socio-economic privilege of people who are not paid by the hour asking those who are to forgo pay in order to pump. It's the thousands of reasons why you might not be able to breastfeed in the first place -- lack of supply, adoption, premature infant, lack of breasts -- or why you simply might not want to and have that reason trump any benefits that breastmilk might bring.

And that is why the smug statements that followed the recall such as "breastmilk never gets recalled" are so damn hurtful. Because first and foremost, just because it's not recalled doesn't make it safe. There are plenty of toxins that are passed from mother to child via breastmilk, plenty of viruses including HIV which are passed from mother to child via breastmilk, and medications that pass from mother to child.

Breastmilk is only as good as the health and nutrition of the mother.

Breastfeeding advocates claim that they have to fight like this because it's a war, though like many other wars that shall not be named, it brings into question ... why? Why does how I feed my children affect another person? We can make up reasons such as "better children's health means lower health care costs," but that's reductive -- breastmilk isn't a magic liquid that saves children from all other medical issues. Breastfed children -- like formula-fed children -- have the potential to develop the same health problems down the road, especially as other types of food are introduced. A reduction of occurrence doesn't mean a prevention of occurrence.

Baby Breast Feeding

I am all for people breastfeeding and I'm all for people formula-feeding -- and I'm even for the people who go half-and-half with breastmilk and formula. I'm for co-sleeping if that's what works for you, and I'm for children having their own room if that works for you. And if you have a half-and-half situation where they sleep in your room some times, I think that's fine too. Do you see where this is heading?

The fact is that the choices you make to raise your child don't affect me. If you breastfeed, it does nothing to change my life, and if you don't breastfeed, it still does nothing to change my life. Which is why I don't understand lactivists -- those foot soldiers who see it their duty to burst into situations that don't affect them and impose their will. A very different attitude of lactation consultants or doulas who offer support for people who choose breastfeeding. And before you start gasping and saying, "but women won't choose breastfeeding if we don't point out how evil formula is!" I'm asking you to pause.

Are you calling women stupid?

Are you saying that women can't make an informed choice based on information presented to her by the medical establishment (which, by the way, should be performing an impartial dissemination of the agreed-upon facts based on research)? Do you believe women can tune out 30 peanut butter brands all working overtime to get them to buy their product, but they can't tune out formula companies if the choice they made was to breastfeed? Those formula companies work hard to get women to use their products, just as all other for-profit businesses work hard to have your money flow in their direction. And we overcome those messages every single day. I believe women can overcome them from formula companies, too.

What does affect me are hurtful campaigns from non-profits that use manipulation in the form of fear and guilt in order to do their work. I expect that from for-profit businesses and listen to (and mentally adjust) their statements accordingly. I don't extend that same feeling to non-profits who are supposed to be passing along factual health information.

What does more damage than formula has ever done to a child is a campaign that uses supremacy language to quantify something that is unquantifiable since we can't adjust for all other factors. To use fear in order to manipulate people. Or to use smugness to vilify women for their choices. We all know the saying that you catch more flies with honey, and certainly, I am much more willing to listen to someone who keeps an open mind to my answer, but calmly lays out the facts than I am to listen to someone who tweets about how formula-using mothers are getting what they deserve with the Similac recall.

Because you've never stood in my exact shoes, because if you had, you'd understand why formula is far from the evil concoction you paint it to be. It's the reason I have children instead of corpses.

I don't feel strongly about breastfeeding or formula-feeding: I feel strongly about treating people well and respecting their choices.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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