Safer Formula Starts With You

Christie Haskell

We hear about it all the time -- infant formula recalled. Infant formula contaminated. Infant formula causes serious side effects.

People who feed their babies formula cry, get angry, and freak out. Even breastfeeding moms get angry.

As we all should. After all, so many moms are trusting their baby's very lives and lifelong health to these products.

But the thing is, generally some of the formula feeding moms are part of the reason formula ISN'T better.

Now, please hear me out. Go through the comments on any of the posts above, and you'll see a bunch of moms who are seriously scared, worried, upset, and even angry at the fact that the company doesn't have better oversight and better prevention.

I don't blame them one bit. Quite frankly, because of what I know about formula and the formula industry, I am so grateful for being able to breastfeed because formula scares the crap out of me. I remember my own friend, who cannot breastfeed, being on the verge of tears, and yo-yoing between sadness and anger when she discovered what looked like wood chips in her twins' formula. I remember discussing with her how badly I'd wished I'd been lactating at the time so I could pump and she wouldn't be put in such a terrible situation. After all, milk donors and milk banks are either hard to come by, or so cost-restrictive that it makes it literally impossible for moms to rely on entirely, or sometimes even in part.

But the thing is, when there is a call to improve formula, a call to force companies to have safer practices and have the FDA actually review ALL of the ingredients, a call to test ingredients BEFORE your baby becomes the test subject ... what happens?

Often the same people begin to defend formula, saying there's nothing wrong with it and people need to back off. Not all women, of course, but enough that formula companies get a lot of support from the very moms that they're duping ... as soon as the fear from the most recent contamination scare wears off.

I hope you're getting my point.

You can't have it both ways. Either you want to plug your ears and sing "LA LA LA NOT HAPPENING!" and ignore any risks or dangers, or you want formula companies to be forced to do better, to have much more concern for your children and less for their own wallet.

An article about infant formula helps describe a major problem:

... Many health-care professionals and public-health officials avoid scrutinizing the production and marketing of commercial infant formula in the United States under the mistaken assumption that providing consumers with all the facts on synthetic infant nutrition will cause bottle-feeding mothers to feel guilty for not breastfeeding. In fact, this unwillingness to explore the safety and nutritional competency of infant formulas retards consumer pressure for better quality product. Marsha Walker, R.N., International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and recognized expert on infant-nutrition, wrote in a September, 1993 issue of THE JOURNAL OF HUMAN LACTATION, "This paternalistic view seeks to protect women from making 'poor' choices for themselves and their infant, and robs parents of the right to informed decision making. Withholding information generates more anger than guilt in parents ... "

To summarize, medical professionals refuse to tell consumers about potential dangers of formula because they are trying to protect moms who use it from potentially feeling guilty.

But in this case, what you don't know CAN hurt your baby. What isn't written on the can, for example, is very specific instructions on how to mix powdered formula to kill the intrinsically risked contamination from a potentially deadly bacteria (this is from the FDA's page on formula):

According to the World Health Organization, recent studies suggest that mixing powdered formula with water at a temperature of at least 70 degree C -- 158 degrees F-- creates a high probability that the formula will not contain the bacterium Enterobacter sakazakii -- a rare cause of bloodstream and central nervous system infections. Remember that formula made with hot water needs to be cooled quickly to body temperature -- about 98 degrees F -- if it is being fed to the baby immediately.

Did you know that? Were you aware that there were very specific instructions? Did you know the name of the bacteria that is present in 14 percent of powdered formula? In other countries, all powdered formula MUST have these instructions AND a warning about E. sakazakii on the side of it, for the protection of the babies who drink the formula -- but not here in the US. Not here, because before people can fight for improvement, more oversight, more transparency, first must come the admittance that it's NOT perfect and DOES need to be improved.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I want to show you a little something about how far formula has come:

  • 1867 -- Formula contained wheat flour, cow milk, malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate
  • 1915 -- Formula contained cow milk, lactose, oleo oils, and vegetable oils; powdered form
  • 1935 -- Protein content of formula considered
  • 1959 -- Iron fortification introduced
  • 1960 -- Renal solute load considered; formula as a concentrated liquid
  • 1962 -- Whey: casein ratio similar to human milk
  • 1984 -- Taurine fortification introduced
  • Late 1990s -- Nucleotide fortification introduced
  • Early 2000s -- Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty-acid fortification introduced

As something necessary for the survival of infants who aren't breastfed, this growth over a century has been absolutely amazing and life-changing. Life-SAVING, honestly. If it weren't for the advances in formula, there would be thousands, millions of dead babies.

But want to know why formula has improved?


People have demanded better, throughout history. But in the recent decade or two, demand has slowed down. A lot. People are afraid to demand better, often acting as if the quality of a product they use is a reflection of their parenting -- as if saying that a product had flaws was saying they, as a parent, had flaws. But come on, you are NOT what you feed. You also get companies saying their formula is "closer than ever to breast milk" (a statement that is illegal in other countries thanks to the efforts of the WHO and UNICEF), and moms who state there's no difference ... even though we all know there is.

Now, demand only happens AFTER there is a problem, not before. We need to DEMAND that formulas are more tailored to individual infants -- that doctors actually discuss with each mother which formula would be best for her specific infant, as was intended. We need doctors to NOT have brand-loyalty, and to be aware of the differences in formulas, the risks of low-iron versus high-iron, the risks or potentially benefits of additional ingredients.

"Formula-fed infants depend on products which can be quite different from each other, but which are continually being found deficient in essential nutrients ... These nutrients are then added, usually after damage has occurred in infants or overwhelming market pressure forces the issue."

We need to stop this reaction to formula problems and instead start putting pressure on companies to do better testing, more testing, have better oversight. We need to put pressure on doctors to be honest with woman from the start, and if they choose formula, they need to be active in helping moms choose the RIGHT one for their specific baby -- not whichever one got to their office and offered goodies first.

And though there are the people or occasions where a breastfeeding mom says something intentionally mean and unhelpful about formula (such as calling it "poison"), the general reason that it's not spoken of fondly is the same reason people don't rave about, say, Prozac. While it's amazing for the people who need it, unless you do, the risks of it are so not worth it, and can even be downright scary.

What I'm saying, and I hope you're still with me, is that if recalls and dangers scare you, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Take an active stand and demand better products and better processes. Don't wait until something bad happens to say something -- demand more of the FDA and companies to help PREVENT something bad from happening.

And those breastfeeding moms who irritate the crap out of you? They'll back up anything you write, say, or do, because inside of breastfeeding moms is a mom who sees a formula recall and thanks her lucky stars she CAN breastfeed. She sees all the scared and upset moms who use formula and wishes she could do something to help them, because the risks scare the crap out of her too -- after all, what if something happened and her baby needed formula, too?

Write letters. Demand better. You and your baby deserve it, and so do all the babies in the future whose lives depend on the quality of infant formula.

Were you aware of all these risks?


Image via mll/Flickr

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