Close-up photograph of a broken lid with silver coloured paint, a blob of glue and bits of lid on white washed wood.

The Politics of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer

A couple of things became clear after reading the book. One, that if a product can be made and sold, rather than just using a natural alternative, the machinery that kicks in to sell us the artificial copy is astonishing. The other, that profit is the only sacred thing for big corporations.

There is excess production of cow’s milk in Europe. So, what is done? Well dry it out and give it to babies. Even if it is not that good for them. Most people who feed babies have been told by someone that babies sleep longer (but not necessarily better) with a bottle. The reason is because formula is more difficult to digest. The effect is that mothers can go back to work.

After the industrial revolution, this was convenient to factories, and we are still there. Having to go back to work is one of the main causes of mothers to stopping breastfeeding or not even starting (so that they don’t have to suffer the trauma of having to stop so soon).

Except in the places where UNICEF’s advice is followed (of which there are not as many as would be desirable) the milk formula manufacturers directly train or bribe the professionals that advice parents. They convince them that formula is better for babies.

And because people want the best for their babies, in some places families spend on formula up to two thirds of a salary that isn’t enough to feed a family to start with. As the rest of the family needs to eat too, they dilute the formula milk to make it last longer. Diluted formula means babies don’t get enough nutrients and, as they don’t get the defences from the mother’s milk either, they end up getting ill. Sometimes they die.

If that weren’t enough, independent testing has shown that bacteria is sometimes present in the formula milk itself. The babies that die because they get ill from the bacteria in the formula, or because of a lack of nutrients in diluted formula, or because of a lack of hygiene during the preparation of a bottle that was unnecessary in the first place, are babies that could have been alive.

Where are the ethics of companies that don’t analyse their formulas or that use propaganda tricks to convince mothers to buy their products (which they can’t afford and don’t need) instead of breastfeeding? And if the companies do analyse their products, know they have germs, and then instead of selling them in Europe sell them in countries with less regulation, which has already been the case, and there are babies who die as a result, what do we call that?

Not only is formula milk is problem. So are the bottles themselves, whose material is not regulated. We know from experience that what isn’t regulated for health reasons will be regulated by costs. And the most convenient option for the manufacturer is not always the best for the baby.

Another popular idea is that not all mothers can breastfeed. Statistically, according to Palmer, the number who can’t for physical reasons is 1%. Nature is powerful. It is documented that mothers breastfeed in concentration camps and during bombings, if they are supported. Without confidence and support, it is impossible. It is a very vulnerable stage for both mother and baby, and many take advantage of this fact to impose their priorities. Corporations know perfectly well that breast milk is better than their products, which is why they make such an effort using sophisticated and expensive advertising to convince us that theirs is better.

The International Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for at least 2 years. According to Harvard research, breastfeeding for more than 24 months can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 50%. Breastfeeding, if it can be done calmly, confidently, and with emotional and institutional support, is a great pleasure for the mother and the baby. It also creates a beautiful intimacy.

It is also amazing how the baby’s saliva communicates with the mother. The milk changes depending on the time of the day or night, on whether the baby is at the beginning or the end of the feed, on the temperature (more liquid if hot, thicker if cold), on the age of the baby, on when it was born (if pre-term), or if the baby has a cold or a bit of a temperature (sending the necessary immunity).

And a handful of men in lab coats claim their version is better? Come on! When they have caught up with nature and have researched for the 100,000 years that humans have existed, we can talk.

When profit matters more than babies.