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Friday, September 16, 2011

Is America being brainwashed by formula ads?

Yesterday someone on Facebook posted a lovely article about babies' development of facial expressions in the womb. Too bad I couldn't get past the hyperactive web banner at the top that screamed "70 PERCENT OF BABIES WILL HAVE FEEDING ISSUES IN THE FIRST YEAR" or something to that effect. Before I could click or do anything, it magically morphed into an ad for infant formula. It was, basically, a call to action that you should be running around with your arms in the air, screaming hysterically, "I must put my child on formula or she will die!"

I must have refreshed my screen several hundred times and that ad never came up again, something I found interesting. I did manage to get a screen shot of the second half, though:

Since I skipped infant formula altogether, perhaps I'm a big dummy - but doesn't soy formula often lead to more stomach upset - not to mention constipation - in babies? And for some infants, it's often an allergy trigger. Not only that, but some worry that the phytoestrogens (a group of chemicals found naturally in plants that can often act like estrogen) and isoflavones (organic compounds that often act as a phytoestrogen in mammals) can be harmful to developing babies. Although the jury is out on whether or not it's harmful, there has been little research done on it - which doesn't necessarily mean it's totally safe.

In the link referenced above, a mom named Janet nervously poses a question to Dr. Ianelli, and says that:
"I am very upset because I have 3 boys who have had to take soy as infants on the advice of my pediatrician and a daughter 2 mos old currently who is having feeding problems while breastfeeding presumably secondary to dairy in my diet and is on soy presently."
Janet, what you need to do is this: save your hard-earned money and change your diet, honey! We want the best for our children. So why aren't more people willing to sacrifice milk and cheese while nursing their babies? Because it's just easier to put them on formula?

I went through this with my second child, who regularly spit up, vomited copiously and screamed halfway through bedtime because, as I found out, she was so miserable. I was determined to find the source, and so, as the Enfamil ad above suggests, I asked my doctor. Turns out, she didn't know squat about what to do and suggested this: "You could put her on hypoallergenic formula for three days and see what happens."

Thankfully I had already done some research on Kelly Mom and realized this would do little, if any, good - for a number of reasons. Namely because if I don't change my diet, then what difference will it make when I started nursing her again? Little did I know, the majority of infant formulas out there are made from cow's milk protein, the very stuff in my breastmilk that was making her so miserable.

Was I broken? Was my child somehow "allergic" to my breastmilk?

Nope. She was sensitive to the stuff in it, and that meant I had two choices: drastically change my diet or put her on formula. I knew one of those definitely wasn't gonna happen, so I took the Mama Bear approach: I totally cut dairy and all its forms (not just lactose) out of my diet, and voila! In ten days (not three), she was a new baby and we were happy. No butter for nine months, but hey, it was worth it and by then it had become more of a minor inconvenience than anything else.

For those babies who routinely are fussy, etc. I bet they too are sensitive to cow's milk proteins, like many babies would be up until around a year - cows milk is often hard for little ones to digest, and if you fed it to them straight before they're ready they'd often up end up projectile vomiting/pooping clear across the room. Is putting them on formula the best answer? Apparently Enfamil thinks so. (And chances are your pediatrician probably would too.)

How many nursing mothers with protein-sensitive babies are told "You have to put your  child on formula!" just because the baby is fussy? How many are encouraged to make dietary changes, or even know that they can, and furthermore - that it might help, or totally solve the problem?

When I googled "side effects of soy formula" I found an article through the website, and scrolled down to read a conveniently-tucked away ad from Enfamil again - this time suggesting you try Nutramigen, a "hypoallergenic formula for babies' milk protein allergies." Dietary changes for mother might be a pain in the ass, but a few months' worth of Nutramigen - at around $30 per can - sounds even more painful on my wallet. No thanks.

I find the sway of advertising particularly amusing, if not frustrating, when it comes to infant formula. Many of them have names like "Good Start," "Nurture," "Premium" (as if the non-premium stuff is made from glass shards) and "Advance." Funny, but if I didn't know any better, I'd think they were talking about breastmilk!

What they don't say, at least
not very loudly: "DHA 
supplemented infants 
exhibited better visual acuity
than that of non-supplemented 
infants (equivalent to one line 
on the eye chart), and similar 
to that of breast-fed infants.
Most advertising seems like a clever ploy to get mom to feel better about her decision to use formula. No one should guilt her into doing or not doing anything, but at the same time one should realize the infant formula's role in cementing the idea in our collective minds that "breast is best, but..." (and that's a big but) or that somehow, you are incapable in some way. While that may be true for some, it certainly isn't for all!

The sad truth is that even after a well-meaning visit from your doctor, you might not come away with all the answers. If you happen to land one who knows a thing or two about nursing, great! But not all of them do, and many get loads of freebies from these same companies who are actively undermining your breastfeeding relationship in an effort to get you to buy their product. Plain and simple. In a normal business setting, this would generally be called a "conflict of interest."

That conflict can taint the ideas of health care professionals who either advise you on breastfeeding problems or take care of your newborn. It's not completely unheard of for mothers to practically insist, to the point of near-violence, that they breastfeed their NICU babies, and will often find the nurse has "just fed the baby" a bottle of formula after they rush in to nurse their own child. Mothers are often told inappropriate things to convince them that breastfeeding is not a viable option and handed a bag of samples "just in case." Perhaps this is borne out of ignorance about breastfeeding; and perhaps it's based on the cultural institution that breasts are for pleasure, not infant feeding. And maybe, just maybe, they're brainwashed by the formula companies who tout their product like the Liquid Gold it is not. (The sad part of it is, infant formula manufacturers have been heavily marketing their product for decades, which can probably why breastfeeding rates have often taken a nosedive in our culture.)

Case in point: product reviews for ProSobee on Enfamil's website.
"When my son was born, he was in NICU for 16 days and he wasn't able to breastfeed..."
 "I have always used Enfamil for my children. Being a Registered Nurse I know how important it is to give your baby a quality formula." 
I have to wonder about that last review, since infant formulas all have to be pretty much standard fare as it is. In fact, previous lawsuits filed against Enfamil have found them guilty of making false claims about store-brand formulas and misrepresenting their product through false advertising.

We already know that US hospitals get a pretty crappy grade when it comes to promoting breastfeeding in new moms. Is it any wonder?! (This link is actually from 2008, and the same articles were surfacing this year - which means not much has changed!) According to the article, the highest score a hospital received was 98 - the lowest was 12. 12?!
 "About a quarter of hospitals reported giving formula or some other supplement to more than half of their healthy, full-term newborns. The practice was common even when mothers were able and willing to breast-feed, Dee said.
Of hospitals who gave supplements, 30 percent gave sugar water and 15 percent gave water.
Experts say there are no good nutritional reasons to use those, but it is commonly done to quiet crying babies separated from their mother."
To me, this means one of several things: they are separating mothers and babies for all those "essential" newborn tests for no reason, which results in hungry babies that need to be placated some way. Therefore, they feed him useless sugar water or infant formula, and by the time he gets to you, he no longer wants to nurse because he's been fed. Even if you express an interest in nursing, they'll often give your baby a bottle anyway - without asking you first. Add nipple confusion, and voila! You're no longer a nursing mom.

Way back in 1981, the World Health Organization developed the International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes, which outlined strict advertising guidelines for formula manufacturers. In some countries, like the United Kingdom - which has the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe - infant formula ads are illegal, although this doesn't include the "toddler formulas" that have come out since the Code was adopted. Not surprisingly, the US does not follow the code. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, begun by WHO in 1991, was a similar program to promote breastfeeding in hospitals. While breastfeeding rates in these specially-designated hospitals was nearing 80 percent, fewer than 100 hospitals nationwide (around five percent) had this designation as of 2008. Roughly half of all infant formula purchased in the US is subsidized by the government through programs like WIC. Consequentially, breastfeeding rates among WIC participants is lower than other groups.

Some of the interesting formula ads I've come across lately...

I love that little 'tilde' ~17 symbol, which basically means,
"We don't really fully understand the wonderful
properties of breastmilk yet, so we're just gonna guess."
These interesting web searches yielded interesting results, according to the PhD in Parenting blog. While the header says "breastfeeding support," you are guided to Enfamil's website and encouraged to try their product. How sweet of you.

The blog also noted how another popular website was offering breastfeeding tips, all while readers were being bombarded with formula ads:

This bag is really cute, but how much do you want to bet the
one they give nursing moms is really boring and ugly? 
Scare tactics and fear-mongering 101:
Only a parent who really cares about
their baby's immune system gives them
This vintage ad for the Enfamil Nursette is interesting - not only do they paint a picture of the idiot dad who can't screw the nipple on the bottle correctly, but they go on at length about how great their product is. When you're encouraged to 'ask your doctor if it's really as good as we say it is,' you're told, "It is." End of conversation, so take our word for it and don't even bother questioning it, 'kay?

During the 60s and 70s, when this ad probably ran, around 75 percent of babies were formula-fed.

This 2006 magazine cover incensed some readers, one of whom proclaimed "breasts are breasts - they're sexual" and shredded the magazine after feeling the need to shield her son from it.  

Yet this one is considered perfectly acceptable:

More reading:
From the PhD in Parenting blog

Past posts:


Lisa said...

"It's not completely unheard of for mothers to practically insist, to the point of near-violence, that they breastfeed their NICU babies, and will often find the nurse has "just fed the baby" a bottle of formula after they rush in to nurse their own child."

This is EXACTLY what happened to me and nearly ruined breastfeeding for us. Thank the Lord there was one amazing nurse who put in a ton of extra time to help my son and I work it out. I had to have a full on break down in the middle of the NICU when I arrived at 3 am to find him in the arms of a nurse finishing a bottle. That was the 3rd time after asking repeatedly for him not to be given a bottle and to be called if he seemed hungry before I got there. I was right down the hall for crying out loud. 21 months later I am still very angry about that one.

The Deranged Housewife said...

I think many moms are simply told they cannot nurse, and don't question it. Which is extremely sad! I think too there is some kind of power trip associated with nourishing a baby, and some people fight tooth and nail for it, even though it's NOT their child. See the link at the bottom of the post called "Gettin' Your Baby Fix on, Similac-Style."

I've heard from a few moms who say the same thing happened to them, too. I think one mom told me they practically had to wrestle the baby out of the nurse's hands in order for mom just to breastfeed. Some have said they pumped breastmilk for the baby to be fed and the nurses dumped it out and used formula instead!

Farrah said...

Thank you for posting this. I hope it informs more women.

Holly Goodman said...

I find it a little insulting that you think everyone who uses formula is so silly and stupid as to be swayed by a mere formula ad. I've never paid a whit of attention to formula ads and used formula only out of necessity. Why not focus on the things that REALLY keep women from breastfeeding instead of assuming we're all silly enough to be swayed by an ad? I appreciate anyone who promotes breastfeeding as I heartily support it too, but there's so much more to the picture than marketing.

The Deranged Housewife said...

No, I don't find women silly or stupid, but you have to admit the very purpose of marketing is to get people to buy things - and it works.

Not only that, but it directly ties into the heavy marketing that doctors, nurses and hospitals are already doing by touting their product, undermining your success at breastfeeding with outdated, ridiculous notions ("your breasts are too small, you should formula feed!") and sending you home with free samples, "just in case." It's not just the ads that are bothersome; they are part and parcel and all tie together.

Erin Whitney said...

I'm pregnant with #2. When I went to my first ob appointment (I'm now seeing a midwife), I walked out of the appointment with an ultrasound picture, lab work orders and a huge bag of formula samples and coupons. I was 8 weeks pregnant. I told the nurse I was going to nurse my baby, and she said I might need it just in case. Wonder how much they got paid to give me the free bag?

Paala said...

Wonderful post. I have linked to it on my new post, Vintage Formula Ads. Do you mind if I share your Enfamil sandwich ad? Please let me know. Thanks! Paala - paalasblog (at)

Kadia Rose said...

Formula has its advantages. Homemade baby formula is best because you can control what you put in it.