Women Who Don’t Breastfeed Shouldn’t Feel Guilty, They Should Feel Angry


Photo by Kati Molin.

Jennifer Margulis’ forcoming book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Baby Before Their Bottom Line, will be published by Scriber in April 2013.

I have an op-ed in today’s Newsday about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Latch On New York Initiative.

If you haven’t heard, Bloomberg announced that, come September 3, New York City hospitals are being asked to voluntarily keep formula under lock and key, just like other medications. If nurses need it for new moms, they would have to sign it out.

Many feminists, like Slate.com’s Hanna Rosin, have been getting on their high horses about how this initiative is taking choice away from women.

They’re wrong.

We live in a country where health is a profit-driven industry. In all but three states (go Rhode Island! Go Massachusetts! And sort of start to go New York), formula manufacturers are given free reign to cozy up to hospital staff, hospital administrators, and pediatricians. Two of the three formula giants in America are among the top donors to the American Academy of Pediatrics every year. No one is naive enough to believe this is because formula makers care about infant health. Abbott Nutrition and Mead Johnson both give huge amounts of money and donations in kind to the medical establishment because they have a product to sell and they are cultivating the “halo effect,” as it’s known in the business world. It makes them look good to be associated with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

I’d love to be wrong on this and I have invited both companies to communicate with me. Abbott Nutrition did not have the decency to return a single phone call. Mead Johnson agreed to meet with me in person in Chicago and then changed their minds. I went anyway, hoping to persuade the handsome, well spoken, and well meaning Christopher Perille, to take a few minutes out of his incredibly busy day to explain Mead Johnson’s corporate mission and company history. This was right at the beginning of my research and I thought I would be writing something about the history of infant formula on the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s history of diaper innovation. Chris, though he came out of this office twice (the first time angrily until he saw that I was nervous, apologetic, and unthreatening; the second time embarrassedly because he didn’t realize I was still there) was too busy preparing for a trip to Brazil where, perhaps, he is happy to talk to journalists.

Mead Johnson is the luminary that brought our children chocolate-flavored baby drinks, which they took off the market after a public outcry. However, their equally disgusting sugar-laden vanilla version is still readily available for thirsty toddlers and aggressively promoted to moms. Accepting corporate donations from companies that make products that undermine children’s health cheapens the mission of the American Academy of Pediatrics and makes every member look bad. It makes pediatricians feel and act beholden to these multi-million dollar industries (no one bites the hand that feeds him), and it is becoming something of a national embarrassment.

This is why so many doctors are against the corporate sponsorship of their professional organizations and are trying–albeit often unsuccessfully–to get the pharmaceutical companies and other corporations out of their offices. Many are, simply speaking, disgusted with a system that both overtly and covertly discourages moms from breastfeeding.

“The vast majority of physicians in my Department agree [corporate sponsorship] is wrong,” Dr. Stefan Topolski, M.D., Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Massachusetts Medical School, insisted when I met with him while doing research for my forthcoming book. “It’s embarrassing. The biggest danger is the loss of professional standing with the public and our patients who see us not able to act independently or stand on our own.”

Our breastfeeding rates are ignominious; our infant mortality rates among the highest in the industrialized world. Telemarketers from formula companies actually call new moms to suggest they stop nursing because formula is more convenient. Formula companies give breastfeeding advice (I won’t link to it but it’s on the Internet and easy to find) that is so frightening it would make most women want to bind their breasts, and moms are being belittled in the hospital, told they are “starving” their babies when they are trying to learn how to nurse, and threatened with separation or even criminal charges if they insist medical staff do not give their babies formula.

Feminists, wake up. American women want to breastfeed as much as women in every country in Europe and Asia who have more success than we do. But breastfeeding is hard and we need support.

Here are the last two paragraphs of my op-ed:

Breast-feeding shouldn’t be only for the wealthy who have the luxury to take time off from work without pay. It’s time for the American government to stop buying formula and instead require employers to provide new moms with a private place to pump. It should mandate and finance paid leave for all new parents. If we prioritized young families over corporate interests, as is done in Scandinavia, we could find the resources to fund this kind of program.

With a system that makes breast-feeding so difficult, women who don’t nurse shouldn’t feel guilty — they should feel angry.

You can read the entire article on-line here.

  1. Julieanne Hensby, Lactation Consultant IBCLC says

    Well said Jennifer – Bravo! and greetings from Australia.

    Many people get confused about this issue, mainly because of thinking that their right to choose how they feed their baby is being threatened.

    This is not the case at all. It’s about stopping the unethical marketing strategies used by the multi-national infant formula manufacturers.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Nestle (the other ‘big’ one) in your article, as it remains in the top four ‘most boycotted’ companies in the world re its marketing of infant formula.

    Perhaps you and other readers may already be aware of the WHO Code (aka the World Health Organisation International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes). Many countries have signed up for voluntary adherence, but this has proven somewhat futile and really needs full legislation to have impact.

    It was the late Senator Ted Kennedy who initiated the creation of the WHO Code which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. The link below is a video clip of him in a 1978 US Senate Hearing cross-questioning Nestle about its marketing of breastmilk substitutes in the developing world (their current focus is on South America, India & China).

    Those interested can also find out more about the WHO Code here:
    FAQs: http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/9241594292/en/

    Cheers, Julieanne

  2. Trish says

    Maybe I’m just one of the lucky few, but I found a ton of breastfeeding support through the hospital where I delivered my baby. The nurses were all more than willing to help, didn’t force formula on me, and they had lactation consultants on staff to assist as well. Despite all that, I STILL couldn’t breastfeed. Between poor latch and not being able to stimulate supply through pumping, I ended up having to switch to formula. Their product DOES serve a purpose and my baby is living (healthy!) proof of that. I used to say I was a breastfeeding advocate, but really I’m just an advocate for healthy, thriving babies who aren’t going hungry. Whether that comes from breast milk or formula, I don’t really care. Especially in this day and age where information is so readily available, I won’t believe that MOST women don’t have the resources necessary to make that decision for themselves, even if formula companies are “pushing” their product on us.

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