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Similac’s Failed Formula to End the ‘Mommy Wars’

Screenshot via Youtube

The Similac parenting video that recently made the rounds is indeed funny and tear-jerking, but it also left me infuriated. How can anyone disagree with the message that we are all parents first, whether we work, stay home, breastfeed, pump, or formula feed? Well, I will tell you how — if the message is tainted by the messenger.   Let me stipulate up front and as loudly as possible: This is not a judgment against parents who formula feed or anyone else. But, it’s disingenuous for a formula company to equate the quality of our intentions with the quality of our choices or options. It veils the fact that it’s the corporate tactics of this company and others like it that contribute to why so many mothers end up unwillingly formula feeding.

Digging even deeper, it’s the capitalist greed of companies promoting profit over health and wellbeing that is the root cause of parenting wars, not our social tribalism as parents. As Jews, we have our own internal wars, of course, so perhaps it’s helpful to draw a parallel. Rather than uniting against the outside forces oppressing us with anti-Semitism, we frequently turn our tension inward and simply attack each other.

From that view, the Similac video is demonically clever. First of all, it seems to be inclusive and support all types of parenting — from strollers to babywearers, to executive women to stay-at-home moms — yet race and class are clearly not in the purview of the discussion of how each tribe simplistically sticks to its own in this artificial war.

Evoking a sense of unity at the end, as the video climaxes, we don’t think about what it is that actually pits us against each other in the first place — be it the unknown of parenting in general or the stress of parenting in today’s privatized, corporate America.   From a lactation perspective, it masks the most pivotal point. While all choices, within responsible limits of course, should be respected equally, they do not have the same public health impact. Not in a country where only 18.8% of mothers are exclusively breastfeeding their six month old babies and 60% of all babies receive formula by the age of three months; while we have an epidemic of childhood obesity and early childhood onset of chronic, weight-related illnesses like diabetes.   All kinds of statistics from the World Health Organization to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tout the advantages of breast milk over formula. It’s not that ‘breast is best’ as the hurtful adage goes, but that we need to #normalizebreastfeeding. It’s the biological norm for mammals, including us. Indeed not only is it the norm but it is at the very root from which the word mammal comes —mammary, mamma, or breast.   It’s also a human right, covered by international conventions that include the right to the highest attainable standard of health and to adequate nutritious food. Studies in the developing and industrial world alike prove that preterm babies are best served by breastmilk over formula. Formula companies have historically and systematically trampled on our rights through underhanded marketing and other tactics.

As Tristan Tiedt, a mother in Tennessee, commented on the ad’s Facebook page, “It’s true that every mother should be celebrated and her choices as a parent respected…But when formula is given instead of actual advice on how to make breastfeeding work, when you market a product to help mothers with supply issues that only makes them dependent on said product; that is wrong.”   Here’s how Similac responded, “We respect your feelings — and we think breastfeeding is great too. In fact, that is exactly what our campaign is about — each mom having the support needed to parent in her own way. If a mom wants to breastfeed, we want to see her be successful and hope she has the support to do so. And, if a mom chooses to formula feed, that is great too.”   It seems like a nice response, even maybe leaving a warm fuzzy feeling like the video — unless you know the history of Similac and companies like it. The issue is so complex that in 1981, 160 countries adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes “to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution.”   In the past The Sisterhood has editorialized against Mayor Bloomberg’s Latch on NYC Initiative, which urges hospitals to be more breastfeeding friendly by not giving away formula unless it’s medically indicated. Yet, the plan is precisely in line with the international code and decades of efforts by advocates to improve women’s right to successfully breastfeed. When the initiative was launched in 2012, 93% of NYC births occurred in hospitals where healthy breastfed infants were supplemented with infant formula.   “No matter what our beliefs, we are parents first,” touts Similac. Is breastfeeding versus formula simply an opinion or matter of belief? Science, statistics, and years of public policy tell us otherwise.   Sybil Sanchez is a certified lactation counselor, breastfeeding mom of a two year old, former director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and New York Communications Coordinator for Mothers’ Milkbank Northeast.


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