The day after Leslie Ott’s daughter, Ella, was born at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Arizona, a doctor came into her room and threatened to separate Ott from her baby. “The pediatrician told me I was starving my baby and would have to give her a bottle, or she was going to be admitted for jaundice and I would be sent home,” Ott remembered. “The baby was cooing and crying, and the pediatrician walks over to the baby and says, ‘Oh, you must be hungry. You look like you’re starving!‘"
Suboptimal Breastfeeding RatesThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women exclusively nurse their babies for the first six months. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommend that breastfeeding begin within an hour of birth, that babies be exclusively nursed for six months, and that the breastfeeding relationship should continue for up to two years—or even longer. According to the World Health Organization, “Breastfeeding is an unequaled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants … infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health."
Benefits of BreastfeedingBoth the breast milk and the act of breastfeeding—cuddling a baby close to your body, skin to skin—offer myriad benefits for both moms and babies. Human milk is the perfect food for human babies. It’s easily digestible, it tastes delicious, and it has just the right combination of healthy fats and proteins, as well as oligosaccharides that adhere to a newborn’s intestinal lining to allow good bacteria to flourish. Breast milk also contains essential immune-enhancing and disease-preventing properties.
In addition, breastfeeding releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that promotes increasing feelings of trust, peace, well-being, and bonding. Once the breastfeeding relationship is established, nursing allows moms and babies to feel connected and relaxed.
But the benefits of breastfeeding for the baby are even more impressive. Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from digestive problems, flatulence, ear infections, bad breath, and respiratory tract infections. In fact, exclusively breastfeeding may sometimes be a matter of life and death. Breastfeeding is protective against SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and necrotizing enterocolitis, an acute gastrointestinal condition, where the wall of the intestines is invaded by bad bacteria, causing inflammation, bowel destruction, and even death.
Infant Formula Companies Influence Doctors, MomsThe artificial milk industry is dominated by a small number of extremely powerful, multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporations. These profit-driven companies employ the best global marketing firms. According to a team of Scottish researchers, the two largest infant formula manufacturers—Nestlé and Danone—spent well over a billion dollars on advertising in 2018-19 alone.
"The advent of social media has made it easier to pose as the friend and supporter of parents,” the Scottish scientists explained. “It is also providing companies with a rich stream of personal data with which they hone and target their campaigns.” Infant formula advertising includes establishing relationships with expectant and new mothers, offering “free” samples to hospitals and doctors’ offices, and using social media (particularly Facebook) to influence moms.
In 1981, WHO and UNICEF, in an attempt to limit infant deaths, tried to prevent inappropriate direct-to-consumer infant formula advertising, by adopting an International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The Code, as it is often called, was aimed at governments, companies, and healthcare workers—not at parents. Partly due to pressure from the artificial milk industry, however, the United States was one of three countries (along with only Chad and Bangladesh) to vote against this voluntary international code.
Industry tactics, this past year, have included making unfounded health claims about the benefits of artificial milk for infants, and promoting misleading information about breastfeeding, in order to cultivate parental fear and uncertainty. They have also used aggressive donation campaigns to make themselves appear as supporters in the fight against COVID-19, the study found. The goodwill these companies gain by participating in the fight against COVID-19 translates into a “valuable marketing asset,” one that has served, ultimately, to “undermine maternal and child health during the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the researchers.
Dr. Jay Gordon, a champion of breastfeeding and a pediatrician in private practice in Southern California, who has over four decades of medical experience, told me he believed pharmaceutical representatives and formula industry salespeople are a big reason why doctors end up undermining breastfeeding. Until he barred them from his office, drug reps would bring Gordon and his staff “free” lunches, “free” samples, branded pens and clipboards, and other free swag.
"What they [were] doing is biasing us, and often giving us information that [was] completely inaccurate,” Gordon said. Women listen to their doctors, Gordon argued, so if doctors actually recommended and supported exclusive breastfeeding, more Americans would do it.
"Pediatricians recommend brands of formula,"Gordon said. “The formula manufacturer who buys you lunch the most often, is liable to be the one you recommend the most. It takes too much time to help people with breastfeeding. We’re not reimbursed for that time. Instead of helping mothers with breastfeeding, we are telling them to use formula."
According to Dr. Bose Ravenel, a retired pediatrician who practiced medicine for 49 years, most pediatricians do not have enough knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding. “Most pediatricians have had very little, if any, learning about the immune system and the benefits of colostrum [the first milk a breastfeeding baby gets],” Ravenel said. “They have been exposed to the idea that breastfeeding is good, but they don’t have a good command of nutrition. Medical schools famously devote very little time to nutrition."
Normalizing, Even Celebrating, BreastfeedingRonda Rousey, 34, a professional wrestler, actress, and martial artist, has been posting breastfeeding photographs of her new baby, La’akea Makalapuaokalanipō Browne, on Instagram. “Our boys asked me the other day how I’m gunna feed Pō on the plane when we take her with us to Hawaii,” Rousey wrote. “And I was like, ‘uhhh, same way I always do.‘ Then it occurred to me that they probably never seen anyone breastfeed before and weren’t sure if it was appropriate in public."
Nursing moms like Rousey are using the grassroots hashtags, #normalizebreastfeeding and #nursingmom, to help encourage and inspire other women to meet their breastfeeding goals. Even though the formula industry wants to convince you otherwise, these moms are on a mission to let everyone know that a woman’s body makes the perfect food to help her baby survive and thrive.