“Food is best”

By Juli

I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room when I was heavily pregnant with my second child, waiting for my turn to become un-pregnant. They had booked my C-section for 8 AM, but, surprise, surprise, it was a busy day and I was bumped several times, so it was a while before they could even get me a bed in triage. So there I sat in the waiting room for 2 hours, my huge pregnant belly making every position in the pastel hospital chair uncomfortable, staring at the posters on the wall because I didn’t have a smart phone at the time. I remember that there was one poster about how smoking can lower the birth weight of your baby, and then approximately five posters about how “Breast is Best.” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this campaign, but if you’ve ever been in a maternity ward you’ve probably seen a poster like this, emblazoned with the slogan “Breast is Best” and listing the benefits of breast milk for a newborn. At the time I was too uncomfortable to even contemplate this campaign, but I have had some time since then, and the conclusion I have come to about the “Breast is Best” campaign is rather simple: I think it stinks.

Now I understand that we might need campaigns such as this in other countries, because in some third world countries, women in poorer areas, due to heavy advertising and a general lack of education, can become convinced that large companies (not naming any names … Nestle) have a greater understanding of what is best for their baby than they ever would, so they opt to buy expensive formula instead of giving their baby the free, luscious milk that flows from their nipples. In a place such as that, educational campaigns about how formula does not in fact trump breastfeeding are probably quite necessary — and this is great, because breastfeeding is indeed, as many studies have shown, a little bit better for a baby than formula, plus it’s free, and if you’re cheap like me, this is an amazing benefit to breastfeeding. But here, in North America, a campaign that loudly declares on hospital walls that breastfeeding is best is really not necessary anymore, in my opinion. Maybe it would have been helpful 30 years ago or so, but today it really feels like it’s doing more harm than good.

Sure, there are probably a fraction of women out there who have decided not to breastfeed for fear that it will negatively impact their breasts — Jennifer Lopez famously fits in this category, being one of the only women I know of who actually did give a really unscientific and dumb reason for deciding not to breastfeed. But J Lo’s dumb reason gets to be her dumb reason. Her body is her body, and that’s fine. And maybe these posters are geared towards helping the J Los of this world remember that breastfeeding is a great option for a baby and that they should consider it, but there are not very many J Los in the world, as it turns out. For every J Lo, in fact, is about a million other moms who are feeling guilty, ashamed, and maybe even less of a woman or less of a mother when they see the slogan “Breast is best” because these women aren’t able to breastfeed.

There are many legitimate medical and emotional reasons for being unable to breastfeed, including (but not limited to) medical issues, incompatibility between a nipple size and a child’s mouth size, a baby’s allergies, clogged ducts, or the fact that some people’s breasts just don’t make milk, or at least don’t make enough. I remember being in the hospital after my son was born prematurely, and trying to coax what little boob-juice I could out of my on-fire nipples in the pumping room (which, by the way, had giant industrial-sized milking machines that I swear must have been there since the 1960s). Usually it was just me in there, but occasionally this giant-breasted lady would come in, peel open her cute work blouse, hook up 2(!) cups, one to each nipple, and flip through a magazine while veritable waterfalls of creamy, beautiful milk poured from her willing nipples. She would make small talk with me too, about being a working mom with a nine month old, and would groan about how “full” her breasts were while I grimaced,  glancing down at the pitiful half-centimetre of white-gray liquid that I had spent an hour extracting. I was jealous of that mom, for sure. My breasts never achieved that level of potency, and yet, in the end, I had just enough breast milk for my wee ones, thankfully.

That is not to say I didn’t almost give up, though. My nipples were a calloused, bleeding, stinging, hot mess for the first few months of each of my nursing ventures, to the point that I seriously considered giving up breastfeeding a few times. Because when someone (me) is not sleeping, is constantly trying to figure out the needs of a small, screaming infant, and when organizing a shower for oneself becomes as complicated as organizing a family trip for four to the Orient, one does not always feel that enduring the seven fires of hell on your nipples is worth it, frankly. Consider also the scads of women who have endured this hell for months, only to be forced to give up because their baby wasn’t getting enough, or a duct got clogged and stopped production, or their baby simply never could manage to latch on properly.

And so, being the amazing mothers these women no doubt are, they perhaps will decide that instead of starving their baby and/or putting themselves through further torture, they will use formula instead. Formula, wonderful formula, which has been tested and re-tested and supplied with every possible nutrient it needs to grow a teeny tiny baby to be healthy and strong and smart and beautiful. Oh formula — the product of brilliant scientific minds whose sole purpose in this venture was to develop something that would give these little tiny babies everything they need to get a good start in life. Maybe this is starting to sound like a commercial for formula, but I don’t care. Formula is one of the most amazing things that our world has come up with, in my humble opinion. And I am confident that many of the women who have had to use it really have made the best, or only, decision for their babies, for themselves, and for their families.

Mixed race mother feeding bottle to newborn baby

But then these women who have decided to give formula to their kids will come to the hospital for their six week check-up, and they will sit on that same pastel chair that I sat on in the hospital waiting room, and while they struggle to prepare a bottle for their screaming, hungry infant they will look up, briefly, and their eyes will fall on that poster that says “Breast is best.” And in that one moment, it is likely that they will feel shamed, misunderstood, and maybe even guilty for not providing what is “best” for their children. And I hate that that mother was made to feel that way. You probably ruined that mother’s day, hospital, with your guilt-producing posters.

But maybe you didn’t know that would happen — and I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt here. So how about you just simply update the slogan “Breast is best” so that it takes all of this into account? For example, how about this: “Breast is great, and formula is pretty good too. It’s also great that you didn’t let your baby starve — thanks, mom and dad!” Or maybe this one: “Breastfeeding is good to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and for those instances there is formula! Bottoms up, babies — your parents love you so very much and want you to grow big and strong!” Or how about just simply: “Food is best! Feeding your baby is the best thing you can do!”

I know that these are not as catchy as the original, but I think you’ll find that that doesn’t matter. That bottle-feeding mama will leave knowing she’s made a good decision for herself and her baby by making sure to provide the sustenance he needs, and don’t you think that’s a good enough reason to make this change? Yeah, I do too. 

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9 thoughts on ““Food is best”

  1. Bonnie Way

    I agree with you that moms have to do what’s best for their babies – and that might look different for each of us. I was lucky enough to be able to breastfeed, but I’ve had friends like you who’ve had difficulties. And I agree with you that there should be no guilt or shaming or pressure. You are taking care of your baby and that’s what matters, not how you do it. (On another note… did you get sent home with a can of formula? I did, after leaving the hospital with both my first and my second daughters, which made me a bit ticked off too, like they were pushing formula… so I guess hospitals just can’t win!!!) 🙂

    1. Juli

      Thanks for sharing, Bonnie! That’s crazy that you were sent home with a can of formula – I didn’t know they did that! I’m sure there are different nurses with different opinions on the matter within the hospital, and maybe they don’t want mothers to give up too easily on breastfeeding, but you read what I’m getting at exactly right – shame and guilt already come so easily to new mothers – let’s trust that for the most part they are already doing their very best!

  2. Karena

    I agree that the “breast is best” slogan many not be the perfect choice of words, but do we need to have posters out there promoting breastfeeding? Um, yes. Because formula spends millions on advertising and good ole boob juice doesn’t have that budget. And their advertising works. It tells us that formula is “closer than ever” to breast milk and we take that to mean that it’s pretty much the same thing while they just changes the colour of their formula and put on the label that it’s closer (in colour) to breast milk. It gives out a number for breastfeeding support and when mothers call it they get barely helpful info that is often leads to weaning. They have questionable marketing practices that go against the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. These shady practices don’t just happen in third world countries, but right in our own. I am not saying that formula is evil (I was a fully formula fed baby, not a drop of breast milk) but that formula companies do not play by the rules with their billions in profit.
    As for what to feed baby when mother breast feeding doesn’t work, the WHO lists breast milk from an other mother either directly or pump before formula. There is a grass roots movement that is promoting mother to mother milk sharing. Not everyone knows this as like I said breast milk doesn’t have a ad budget. http://hm4hb.net/

    1. Juli Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Karena. I can only speak from my experience, which has taught me that many, many moms are quite proactive with information when it comes to seeking the best for their children, which gives me the impression that most of them already know that breastmilk is the ideal option. What I am pushing back on here is the way posters and slogans like “Breast is Best” don’t acknowledge the hard truth that some moms don’t really have a choice, in the end, and promote shame and a feeling of failure in mothers who don’t have the luxury of making the choice between breast milk and formula. Donor breast milk, from what I have learned, is currently expensive and hard to come by. I think the “milk sharing” movement is a great idea, though – thanks for linking that. I am sure you are right that formula companies have way more money to promote their product than our collective breasts do to promote their milk, but I guess, in my mind, the good that has come of it is that mothers that can’t breastfeed have more options than ever before now, and to me this is a really good thing. It seems we are both in favour of education, helping all parents make good choices where their babies are concerned. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  3. Jaymie

    As a mom who tried and was unable to breastfeed, YES! I HATE those frickin posters!! I felt such shame that I wasn’t breastfeeding, because of the heavy handedness of the “Breast is Best” campaign. I’ve actually had convos with my friends about this exact thing and wondered where the posters were telling us that formula was ok too.

  4. Patricia

    I think we mothers are just too sensitive. I really struggled to breastfeed, but it was something I really wanted to do. It hurt for 4 months, I bled and had blisters. I had flat nipples and an overactive supply and overactive let down, I saw 7 lactation consultants before it just resolved itself on its own. Everyday I wanted to quit but my baby refused formula and I didn’t really want to give it to her. I liked the fact that my milk was made for her and no one else. I never felt pressure to breastfeed but I felt a lot of pressure to give up. I still get a lot of pressure or indirect comments to wean completely . Questions as to my milk supply, questions on the quality of my milk, the inability for my baby to sleep etc. so we can’t win if we breastfeed or not, we get judged or we judge ourselves. If you are truly confident in your choice you won’t feel bad. I don’t feel bad about breastfeeding and if it didn’t work out for me I would not have felt bad because I literally ” bloody tried my hardest”. I respect JLO for being honest. It wasn’t important for her and that is ok. You don’t have to breastfeed if you don’t want to even if it is better for your baby. Organic food is better but maybe it’s not a break or make it deal for a family and that is ok! But saying breast is best shouldn’t bother you if you couldn’t because you know you couldn’t. I personally wish more women would admit that they didn’t want to breastfeed rather than saying they couldn’t produce enough milk when there are pills to produce milk or that there baby couldn’t latch because if you really want to you will find a way. The way I could have forced my baby to drink formula even though she would spit it out. But it’s is 100 percent ok not to want to breastfeed because breastfeeding is demanding. Only you can feed your baby, you are tied down to your baby and your body doesn’t belong to you. I totally understand why some mom don’t want to breastfeed because I sometime I didn’t want to too it doesn’t make you a bad mother and it doesn’t make me a better mother because in motherhood we will have to pick and choose our battles and maybe breastfeeding is not your battle whether you can’t or dont want too

  5. Anonymous

    Love this! I tried breastfeeding with all 3 of my kids, I persevered through my first with a horrible time doing it. I had a suspicious lump surgically removed years before I started having kids, and had over half the milk ducts on the one side severed during surgery. I was able to feed my kids their colostrum but as soon as my milk came in my breast felt like mastitis, because all of my milk ducts worked, but the ones that were cut off the milk had no where to go. Eventually my breast just stopped producing milk where it was cut off, giving my babies very little to work with. With my second and third I switched to formula, and they are doing just fine.


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