How the baby formula debate is harming food banks

Image description: a baby being fed from a bottle

The view that formula milk is significantly inferior to breast milk, or worse, downright harmful for children’s health, has been causing a shortage of baby formula in food banks. This is an extremely alarming trend that puts the health of children in danger. It seems especially detrimental in light of the fact that many families that are struggling financially rely on formula milk to feed infants.

Breastfeeding is a practice for the nutrition of infants during the first months of their life that is vastly accepted around the world. Infant formulas are rich in iron in order to mimic breast milk. Even though several organisations promote breastfeeding as the most favourable option for the first twelve months of the child’s life, there has been some backlash precipitated by recent research. It has been observed that breastfeeding has lost in popularity and the United States of America is among the pioneers that promote the usage of baby formula instead of breast milk, supporting the baby formula industry.

UNICEF recommends that food banks do not provide baby formula to mothers due to concerns for the safety of the baby – there are many different products on the market and it is difficult, if not impossible, to choose exactly the right one for the needs of each baby.

It is a shame that the debate pitting breast milk against baby formula is affecting the people that are most vulnerable and that need the government’s help the most.

Supporters of breastfeeding argue that there is a high probability that infants that have not been breast-fed during the first months of their lives will face health problems later in life, such as diabetes or unstable levels of copper in their bodies. In addition, it has been argued that children that have not been breastfed are at a greater risk of dying in infancy. A major concern in relation to the consumption of baby formula is impairments in the absorption of minerals.

However, not every woman can breastfeed. For example, a woman may be on medication that does not allow her to breastfeed or may not be able to produce adequate milk to feed her baby. Some women may not choose to breastfeed because it could be painful or take up a lot of time and effort. Breastfeeding promotion has been so overzealous that it has imparted guilt on those who use formula.

Food banks have to turn away struggling mothers without giving them milk to feed their babies due to the guidelines they need to follow. When mothers become desperate, they water down the formula they have or feed their baby with cow’s milk, even though it is unsuitable for children younger than one year old. Defending their personal autonomy to health workers may not be an option or a priority for people who are heavily financially dependent on these services. It is a shame that the debate pitting breast milk against baby formula is affecting the people that are most vulnerable and that need the government’s help the most.

Optimal nutrition during infancy is crucial for a healthy life later on. There has been a shift in the stance that organisations dealing with infant feeding practices take on the issue – they used to promote baby formula quite extensively, but now increasingly advocate in favour of breastfeeding. These organisations aim to reduce incorrect feeding practices which can lead to infant malnutrition, and, while well-intentioned, they seem to fail by restricting women’s options. Physicians and health providers can greatly influence mothers when it comes to selecting a feeding method; however, ultimately the choice should be up to the mother. The immoderate use of artificial infant formulas is a risk factor in comparison to the multiple advantages of breastfeeding, but women should have the opportunity to decide what works best for them. They should have the freedom to make the ultimate choice on a matter that intimately concerns their and their children’s bodies, and wide availability of baby formula in food banks is vital to this.

Image credit: Lucy Wolski on Unsplash