I breastfed both of my babies. In fact, I’m still breastfeeding my 2 1/2 year old Jacob, although I see him moving closer and closer to weaning every day. What’s more, I consider myself a lactivist, or breastfeeding advocate. I strive to help other mothers meet their own breastfeeding goals, and I speak out when I see societal barriers to breastfeeding.
I understand that no infant formula can ever come close to breast milk. For one thing, we still don’t know all of the ingredients in human milk. For another, breast milk composition changes over the course of the day, and even over the course of a feeding. Plus, breast milk contains antibodies that help protect an infant from illness. There’s just no way to replicate this kind of system artificially.
While we all know how super-awesome breast milk is, not everyone breastfeeds their baby. There are a whole lot of reasons for this, but honestly, I am not inclined to evaluate anyone else’s specific situationi. We’re all doing the very best we can for our babies, and I understand that different people face different circumstances and make different choices. I also know that infant feeding is only one small part of parenting, and that in and of itself it’s not likely to be the deciding factor for how your child turns out. My goal in advocating is to help those who want it, not to judge those who don’t.
When breastfeeding doesn’t work, the best alternative is human donor milk. This is especially critical for very sick or premature infants, with less-developed digestive systems. And, at present, they’re mostly the ones who receive donor milk. While human milk banking is on the rise, there’s still nowhere near enough supply to meet the demand. While some people turn to informal milk-sharing arrangements, or groups such as Eats on Feets, there are still challenges in securing a supply, as well as some debate over the safety of informal milk sharing. What this means is that for most people who don’t breastfeed, the only viable alternative is infant formula.
A couple of years ago I read about the history of infant formula. I concluded that the current commercially-available formulas represent a significant advantage over previous breast milk substitutes, but that they should not have been as widely-adopted as they were during the middle of the 20th century. Infant formula, as it exists today, has no doubt been life-saving, but it’s certainly not equivalent to breast milk, and it never can be.
This probably isn’t really news, though. We’re all pretty well-versed in the risks of infant formula now. We also know that formula companies market their product aggressively, and in ways that can undermine breastfeeding. I personally boycott Nestle because of their formula marketing practices.
So what happens when you don’t like what the formula industry does, and you’re faced with using their product? It’s a big issue for some families. I’ve heard of several parents who, when faced with using infant formula, chose to make it themselves at home. They’ve heard about the risks of infant formula, they’re not comfortable with the practices of the formula industry, so they’ve decided that making their own formula is preferable to buying a commercially-prepared product.
If you search online, you can find a lot of recipes for homemade formula. It’s touted as healthier and cheaper, and many people point out that it’s been used for generations. In fact, groups like the Weston A. Price Foundation recommend homemade formula over commercial formula. Other parents say that their children react badly to commercial formulas, because of dairy and soy allergies. Homemade goats’ milk formulas seem particularly popular as an alternative to commercially prepared formulas, because some children reportedly handle them better.
Homemade formula isn’t new. My grandmother gave me her baby book when my daughter was born, and it contained instructions for preparing infant formula. The process essentially involved cow’s milk, water, sugar, and a whole lot of sterilization. However, it should be noted that the same book recommended giving weeks-old infants drops of tomato juice and cod liver oil, in part because the homemade formula was nutritionally deficient. If you didn’t supplement it, babies were at risk of developing scurvy and rickets.
So, how safe is homemade formula? Most health bodies recommend against making your own formula, including Health Canada and the FDA. The concern is that if you get the ratios wrong, you’re putting your baby at risk for a whole host of health problems. Dr. Sears and Dr. Greene agree.
While I don’t agree with the marketing practices of formula companies, I do believe they’re creating the best product they can. I’m sure that their goal is to provide the most complete nutrition possible. It may not always be clear how to provide that nutrition, since there’s much about breast milk we still don’t understand, but I don’t think that they would deliberately harm babies. It’s certainly not in their best interest to do so, if they want customers. And so, since the risks of poorly-prepared infant formula are so high, the commercial formulas that formula companies produce are probably the best alternative to human milk we have.
I wonder what your thoughts are. Have you heard of people making their own formula? Have you (or would you) make your own formula? And if you were faced with feeding your own baby formula, what would factor into your own decision? I’m curious to know!