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Stacie Billis Headshot

Move Over Lactation Consultants, We Need Formula Consultants

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Sun poured in through the cafe window. I was sitting with my first son, an infant at the time, in the corner of our local coffee spot. I chose a table as far from everyone as possible, but still felt exposed. The table was right by the window. Everyone would see.

I reached into my bag and, with tears filling my eyes, pulled out a baby bottle filled with water. I considered giving him a few pure sips for show, but he was hungry. I snapped to and continued our new feeding process. Instead of unhooking a secret panel in my bra, I reached into my bag for a second time and shiftily pulled out a brand new, baby blue container filled with white powder.

The way I was acting, you would have thought it was cocaine. It was formula.

The story of how I became a reluctant formula feeder is long and, for me, painful. I have a passion for feeding -- I've made a career of developing recipes and writing about healthy family eating -- and was crushed when I discovered, after consulting with (too) many experts, that I have an underlying health issue that keeps me from producing enough milk to feed my children. My son was 3 months old when they told me that he wasn't thriving on my breast milk alone. I started supplementing with formula and fell into a depression marked by a disturbing hostility towards my body and an unbearable sense of failure.

I eventually bounced back. I forgave my body and even managed to supplement my second baby from the start. Doing so helped me breastfeed him, at least partially, for five months without losing my sanity the way I did the first time around. There's a lot to be said for that. So why can't I get over my distaste for formula? After all, it saved my children from starving.

I've been thinking about it a lot in the wake of Latch On NYC, a pro-breastfeeding (anti-formula?) initiative introduced by NYC's mayor Bloomberg that requires participating hospitals to:

  • Enforce the NYS hospital regulation to not supplement breastfeeding infants with formula feeding unless medically indicated and documented on the infant's medical chart;
  • Restrict access to infant formula by hospital staff, tracking infant formula distribution and sharing data on formula distribution with the Health Department;
  • Discontinue the distribution of promotional or free infant formula; and
  • Prohibit the display and distribution of infant formula promotional materials in any hospital location.

(By the way, participation is voluntary and can be partial.)

My first reaction to Latch On NYC was overwhelmingly positive. What an amazing thing! Then I started reading reactions on some of my favorite mommy blogs like this one and this one, this one and this one, too. As it turns out, a lot of moms were pissed at Mayor Bloomberg. Some felt that the initiative treated new moms like children and, worse, could hamper choice. I commented on a few of these posts but, truth be told, all of these smart conversations about motherhood, choice and judgment (oh, the judgment!) had me a bit turned around.

I want choice!

I want to be free of judgment!

I want mothers to feel supported, capable and most of all, free to be and do whatever they want!

But I don't believe that the status quo gives us these things any more than they will in Latch On NYC hospitals.

What most hospitals have now -- where a single brand of formula is more readily available than breastfeeding support at one of the most critical times in breastfeeding success -- is, in my opinion, an illusion of choice. What's the difference between free floating formula and formula being available only by request? According to the research, the chance of a great number of new moms giving breastfeeding a serious go. And, let's get honest, shall we? Breastfeeding is better for baby. Formula is a suitable -- sometimes even overall healthier -- option that saves lives and feeds many healthy, happy, thriving babies, but there's a lot to consider. And, to make matters more complicated, not all formulas are created equally.

While the FDA regulates the amounts of protein, fat, vitamins, carbohydrates and minerals contained in formula, it does not regulate the amount of sugar, the kind of sugar, quality of source ingredients, or how the formula is packaged. So, for example, some formulas -- organic options included -- contain significantly more sugar than others with no nutritional reason.

Who's telling new moms about this stuff? Not to scare them away from formula, but to equip them with what they need to make an informed choice? When I started formula feeding, I had to figure this stuff out for myself and it was scary. I was afraid I'd make a bad choice. Though it had to be sought out, I could find breastfeeding support when I needed it. But all I could find in the way of support for formula feeding was information from formula companies. The same ones that you most commonly find in the hospitals. None of which make my formulas of choice.

Real choice will be available when women can count on hospital staff to provide them not just with breastfeeding skills, but also the tools to make smart decisions about choosing formula. When more than one brand is available in hospitals and health care providers can speak to the health benefits of each chosen brand. When instead of a branded goody bag, new moms walk out of the hospital knowing how to get affordable support for whatever decision they've made, including where to get coupons for their formula of choice.

Perhaps Latch On NYC is trading in one illusion of choice for another. But as someone who feels passionately about empowering parents to feed their children in the healthiest way possible while staying sane and healthy themselves, it's a small part of the issue that I care about. And Latch On NYC gives optimal health for baby precedent over marketing partnerships while still giving moms an option to choose between breastfeeding and formula.

I don't think that my lingering distaste for formula is just about the stigma of formula or the mommy judgment that burned me over five years ago. It also has to do with the fact that I felt taken advantage of at my most vulnerable moment. How, in the most expansive free market, could I have had so few healthy options? Why was I being forced to feed my baby tons of sugar? Out of BPA-lined cans? Why so many recalls: Arsenic? Bad DHA and ARA supplements? Tainted milk? Veterinary drugs? Who was watching out for me and my babies and why was nobody there to help me figure it all out? Formula didn't support my freedom of choice, it made me feel trapped into feeding my baby a food that I didn't understand or believe in.

Perhaps if we can help moms make sense of formula and give them the tools to choose the best one for their circumstances -- one that they can feel good about -- I'll finally feel better about formula. Oh, and getting some better, affordable formulas on the market would help, too.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on One Hungry Mama, Stacie's personal blog.

Follow Stacie Billis on Facebook: Facebook.com/onehungrymama.