Funny, I don’t feel like laughing

In response to Hanna Rosin’s now-infamous article that “breast may not always be best,” one blog titled “Mommy Myth-Busters” picked up on it, and said that the “breast is best myth has been busted.”

Of course, a long comment-conversation ensued, and someone named Jennifer wrote the following comment (sorry for it being out of context, but you can read those above for context):

HAHAHA! If you are going to make a case for “Formula KILLS children”, please cite your extensive, scientific evidence. Because that claim is utterly LUDICROUS. If that were true, don’t you think there would be reported deaths all around the country attributed to formula? There would be deaths every day, due soley to formula! Chapters on formula deaths would be right alongside SIDS chapters in books: “Formula has been shown to cause death in whatever% children. Know the risks!”

Sounds like you’ve been thoroughly brainwashed.

Kills children..haha, I’m still laughing.

I tried to respond, but unfortunately it discarded my comment — probably for being too long and/or having too many links. So I am posting it here, and will link back to the discussion:


I hope you will quit laughing about children dying, because I don’t think the topic is very funny. Here are just a few links for your perusal, and I daresay you will be able to find many more.

In this one, formula feeding is associated with higher medical costs in the first year of life, in Arizona; and cited other studies that showed “lower rates of infant illness in both developing and industrialized countries” (you can look at the footnotes for the particular studies. It doesn’t mean that these illnesses necessarily lead to death, but most infant deaths are preceded by illnesses, so even this study shows a strong correlation if not causation due to not breast-feeding, which then leaves only formula feeding or starvation.

This link is just to the abstract of a study (unfortunately the full study requires a subscription), but it speaks of the important protective effect of breastfeeding against infectious illness in industrialized countries, and says that this protective effect is even stronger in developing countries. While it discusses the many factors of infant mortality that are different in developing vs developed countries (clean water, health care, etc.), it notes that, “Much of the difference in rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity is attributable to high rates of infectious illness, especially gastrointestinal disease. Thus, in these populations, the positive effects of breast-feeding are of greater potential importance for the health of the infant population and should be easier to detect in clinical and epidemiologic studies.” You see, when a formula-fed child in the United States gets sick, the mom can bop down to the doctor or hospital and get help so that the child usually does not die. Third-world mothers do not have that luxury, so please don’t keep laughing about these poor babies that are dying due to diseases that they would not have gotten were they breastfed.

Still laughing? Well, try this one on for size — “free formula — a blessing or a curse?” — which discusses formula-feeding in the case of an HIV-positive mother (who may pass on the virus to an as-yet uninfected child by breastfeeding him or her), and says, “Formula eliminates HIV transmission but incurs risk of increased mortality, whereas breastfeeding has multiple benefits but entails risk of HIV transmission.”

Maybe you’re no longer laughing, but in case you’re still chuckling… Read this from the World Health Organization that says that exclusive breastfeeding for six months reduces by 3-4x the transmission of HIV from an infected mother to a child, compared to non-exclusive breastfeeding [btw, it’s thought that this is because formula feeding is so much harder on a child’s system that it opens up little places — sores, ulcers, fissures whatever you want to call them — in the stomach and intestines which can then more easily absorb the HIV from breastmilk — with exclusive formula feeding, there is no HIV transmission; with exclusive breastfeeding, there are much fewer raw areas in the intestines; but mixed feeding carries both risks]. It further says, “where free infant formula was provided, the combined risk of HIV transmission and death was similar whether infants were formula fed or breastfed from birth; and (3) early breastfeeding cessation was associated with reduced HIV transmission but also with increased risk of morbidity and child mortality in infants born to HIV-infected mothers.” And, “There is no doubt that there are small groups in resource-constrained countries with basic and essential services that allow the hygienic preparation of formula milks. However, for the child population as a whole the unrestrained promotion of formula is generally harmful.” This article also discusses the limitations on safe preparation of formula (for instance, it’s not very healthful to mix formula with dirty, disease-laden water, is it? plus many mothers cannot afford formula, so will water down the formula too much to make it stretch, and the child does not get enough nutrition). Haha, you know I’m laughing about babies starving to death, or being so malnourished that they cannot fight off infection. Laugh it up.

From the UK a study, which states that, “Breastfeeding, particularly when exclusive and prolonged, protects against severe morbidity in contemporary United Kingdom. A population-level increase in exclusive, prolonged breastfeeding would be of considerable potential benefit for public health.” — and if it is so beneficial amongst an already healthy and well-cared-for population, imagine how much more beneficial it can be among those who do not even have clean water.

Finally, this one, which also cites the 1.5 million deaths per year that was noted above: “Postneonatal mortality is most often caused by infectious diseases, such as pneumonia, tetanus, and malaria. An important factor in reducing post-neonatal mortality is adequate nutrition, particularly breast milk, which provides babies with both the nourishment and the antibodies to fight infectious diseases. Of course adequate breast milk depends upon adequately nourished mothers. Also important is the proper use of breast milk substitutes—mixing formula with unclean water and/or diluting formula for cost-savings reasons, both known to occur in developing countries, have negative affects on the health of infants. The promotion by multinational corporations of breast milk substitutes to women in poorer countries has been one of the travesties of our times; it is estimated that 1.5 million deaths a year could be prevented by breast-feeding.”

Funny, I don’t feel like laughing.

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14 Responses

  1. From the New York Times: ” BEIJING — Chinese officials on Monday issued a higher estimate for the number of children affected by tainted dairy products, saying that as many as six babies might have died and nearly 300,000 were sickened after consuming contaminated milk powder.”


  2. I’m glad RR brought up the point of tainted products because that is the one thing impossible to dispute in the breastfeeding vs. formula. Except in the unfortunate case of HIV, breast milk is rarely tainted!! It just doesn’t happen. Our bodies are designed to create beneficial milk, not harmful milk!

  3. Haylee,

    I agree with you, but occasionally, I hear rumors of this scientist or that doctor raising fears of *something* in breastmilk (some environmental contaminant that somehow gets into the woman’s body and then into her breastmilk). The first thing I think is that surely cows would have this contaminant in them as well, and possibly even at higher doses in formula made from their milk than in breastmilk. Also, just because there is some environmental contaminant in breastmilk, it does not necessarily mean that it is actively harmful to the child, nor that the harm from the contaminant cancels out the benefit from breastfeeding. I found it most interesting in my research this morning on this topic that even free formula given to HIV+ mothers was worse for their babies than potentially HIV-contaminated milk! Wow! How telling is that!

  4. Oh, yes, I also forgot — RR’s comment about contaminated milk made me think of the situation in our country leading up to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (I think in 1900 or somewhere thereabouts) — namely, that unscrupulous dairymen were watering down their milk so much that they added *chalk* to the milk so that it would look white and “milky” again, so they could sell it as real milk. I know this undoubtedly contributed to the deaths of numerous poor children who were already living in cramped and squalid conditions in large cities like New York.

    I don’t think that this Jennifer was really thinking it was funny that children were dying — she was just unfortunately ignorant of the real state of things, particularly in foreign countries that are not as blessed as we are, and her ignorance led to incredulity and from that, to a horrible attitude (directed at another woman with whom she was arguing), and it came out the way it did — that if babies aren’t dropping like flies due to formula in the United States or other modern countries, then it must be as safe for all other babies — without thinking of what privations and diseases so many millions of people endure on a daily basis.

    I was a little snarky in my response to her, but I gotta admit that her comment got under my skin.

  5. YOU GO GIRL! I LOVED your response. You are a gifted writer and I too have been so bugged about the initial article and then her comment.

  6. Wow, what a thorough response! I am completely impressed! You are right on with your comments.

  7. Great response.

  8. One of my professors does an exercise with people (in particular public health people). She says, “Raise your hand if you think breastfeeding has health benefits”. Well, everyone raises their hands! Obviously, we know it has health benefits.

    “Raise your hand if you think breastfeeding saves lives.” Because of the evidence you cite, almost everyone raises their hands.

    “Raise your hand if you think formula kills.” Suddenly, the hands stop going up.

    I would never promote breastfeeding by saying that formula kills. I would never say “Your baby will die of SIDS if you don’t breastfeed” because breastfed babies die of SIDS and formula fed babies die of SIDS. But would there be fewer SIDS deaths in the U.S. if all children were breastfed? Evidence says yes.

    And in fact, the international code of marketing for breastmilk substitutes DOES state that all formula cans should carry warnings of formula’s risks. That the U.S. does not enforce the Code doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be.

    See if you can get your comment posted because people need to hear this!

    • Rebecca,

      Yes, it’s hard to take the step from saying “breastfeeding saves lives” to saying “formula kills children.” I remember reading several years ago some book on breastfeeding (I forget which one, but it was one of DONA’s required reading books), and the author made the point that when looking at breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding, we take the wrong one as the standard. For instance, we say things like “breastfeeding lowers the rate of diabetes [obesity, cancer, SIDS, etc.]” or that “breastfeeding raise the rate of [insert good thing here]” — and this makes unnatural formula feeding the norm, the standard! Instead, breastfeeding should be the standard, and formula should be compared negatively to it — “formula increases the rate of diabetes [obesity, cancer, SIDS, etc.].” Looking at it in that light is quite telling! It also looks harsher towards formula, which is probably why many people shy away from it — particularly doctors and hospitals [who ought to be impartial and unbiased health-care providers who ought always to give the best advice for their paying customers] who may get a little something from formula companies, which blinds them to their real duty to their clients and patients. Plus, there’s the idea of “it can’t be too bad if we can fix it,” and many health problems like diabetes can be fixed or at least ameliorated by the marvels of modern medicine. It’s the same concept behind not telling women that epidurals may lead to maternal hypotension which may lead to fetal distress which may lead to a C-section. What woman would intentionally put her baby at risk for developing fetal distress, or put herself at risk for getting a C-section? Yet they are often not warned of potential dangers because medical teams are so good at rescuing babies from these things when they happen, and then “all that matters is that you’ve got a healthy baby.” Um, yeah. Ok, chasing rabbit trails now. 🙂

  9. This is a fine response, but it is not in response to either the Hanna Rosin article or the Mommy Myth Buster response. It does appear that you have entirely missed the point of both. Nobody – and I repeat NOBODY – is saying that breastfeeding is not the optimal choice when possible. It would be fatuous to even imply such. The point is, it is not ALWAYS best for every family. That is the point, the only point, and totally inarguable unless you are intolerant and unempathetic to the various special circumstances of families and women.

    • MMB,

      If you’ll read the introduction of my post, you will see precisely why I wrote this post — I specifically said it was in response to a comment made on your post left by someone named Jennifer who expressed incredulity that formula kills children. I wrote it as a comment on your blog, but when I tried to post it, it said it was “discarded” — I assume it was because it was too long and/or contained too many links, which is why I wrote the post on my blog as I did, linking to your blog as I did. I wrote the introduction as I did because I have numerous people subscribed to my blog (nearly 90 through Google Reader alone; perhaps more through other venues), and I wanted them to be able to understand what I wrote and why I wrote it. I included Jennifer’s comment to which I was responding, so that they could read it, and realize precisely what I was referring to. I never said it was a response to the Hanna Rosin article nor to the MMB response, and in fact specifically said my post was in response to Jennifer’s comment.

      In a previous comment I wrote in response to your post, I also agreed that breastfeeding is not always best for every family, even though breastmilk is (with super-extremely-rare exceptions) always best for babies. But I simply had to respond to Jennifer’s response because it was so completely over-the-top, and just simply wrong. Babies are dying because they’re not being breastfed — maybe not in America, maybe not in other industrialized countries (although I would take issue with that stance, as well, since a higher percentage of formula-fed babies than breast-fed babies die of SIDS; and some of the links I cited talked about higher rates of infection in healthy Western babies; also breastfeeding preemies lowers the rate of necrotizing enterocolitis, which also has a high death rate in the West; but most of these babies could not be saved in under-developed countries because of the other health problems that science and medicine can cure while breastfeeding cannot), but certainly babies are dying in other countries at a higher rate when fed formula than when fed breastmilk.

      Again — this post was not responding to the Rosin article (which I already did before, several weeks ago), or your post as such, but was strictly responding to one of your commenters.

  10. As always your post is clear and to the point!How I wish I was in your area at the time I was birthing my babies so I could have taken your classes. Ever thought of doing CBE training for other teachers?

  11. It was stated that formula is not killing babies in the U.S., but that is not true.
    Linda Palmer has done the research and the math on just how many babies die because they are fed formula.

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