Infant feeding is a human rights issue.
Globally, only about 1/3 of infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed. The World Health Organisation estimates that increasing breastfeeding to near-universal rates could prevent 800,000 child deaths annually, the majority of these being children under 6 months in low and middle income countries. Up to half of diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses – two of the biggest killers of children under 5 – could be prevented by optimal breastfeeding.
In industrialised nations, lifting breastfeeding rates would see significant reductions in common childhood illnesses, and the costs associated with treating these illnesses. But racial and socioeconomic disparities mean that even in wealthier countries, the burden of preventable formula-related illness falls disproportionately on women and children of colour.
The rhetoric of choice employed in our Western ‘breast vs bottle’ debates is privilege writ large. Among educated wealthy white women, our formula use is heavy with guilt hang ups about eczema and ear infections. Using formula does not cost children their lives in our neighbourhoods, where safe water and electricity are taken for granted and nobody waters down formula to make the can stretch further.
The Fed Is Best Foundation is based on the distortion of evidence and public health information in order to promote support the use of infant formula. FIB casts breastfeeding as inherently unsafe and downplays the risks of infant formula because “mothers shouldn’t be shamed”. In the world of FIB, the biggest risk of formula is that a mother might feel bad about using it. Which is why they can post statements like this:
Our privileged society is eager to point fingers and shame families who nourish their babies with formula. In Africa, families live in deplorable poverty and these babies would die without formula. Their families are forever grateful when they have the opportunity to use it. #FedIsBest
My instinct is to respond to this by pointing out that 800,000 families a year are grieving babies who they lost thanks to their ‘opportunity’ to use formula. But having personally witnessed Dr Christie del Castillo-Hegyi flatly deny these figures on multiple occasions, I’m not going to bother with silly things like evidence because the FIB Foundation is clearly embracing life in a post-truth world.
Instead, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge the racist, classist underbelly that FIB has revealed here. The post they shared is from an organisation called 2ndMilk. 2ndMilk appear to be a small USA-based Christian charity run by a wholesome-looking young couple with excellent dental hygiene. 2ndMilk’s mission statement is: “To feed at risk malnourished babies and give them the best opportunity for a healthy life.”
2ndMilk are suffering from a bad case of White Saviour Complex. Through their ‘partnership’ rich Americans can sponsor cute little orphans and enjoy poverty tourism activities like handing out lollipop, distributing something called PB&J (which they actually refer to as “Peanut Butter & Jesus”), and finding new babies to save. This is the kind of charity work which people who genuinely understand issues of poverty and development – not to mention many African people themselves – are begging people to stop.
But the FIB Foundation love it. They love it so much that they don’t even bother to point out that the babies in the photo they shared are extremely unusual babies in the majority world – babies who are adequately cared for once orphaned, and for whom formula is a genuinely life-saving intervention as opposed to something which puts their life and health in jeopardy.
2ndMilk’s work benefits approximately 60 babies. This is not evidence that formula saves lives. This is evidence that white people can fly half way across the world and pop in and out of the lives of impoverished black babies. But the FIB Foundation want us to look at these babies and see ‘families in desperate poverty’, in fact not just ‘families in desperate poverty’ but ‘families in desperate poverty who are forever grateful for the opportunity to use formula’.
Let us be perfectly clear: this is cultural imperialism at its most egregious, and it is putting the lives of poor black babies second to the desire of rich white women to feel comfortable with their infant feeding choices. Breastfeeding in the majority world and emergency situations is unquestionably and unequivocally life saving. Formula use is so dangerous in some situations that organisations such as UNICEF support lactation specialists in crisis situations to help women to re-establish their breastmilk supply to be able to feed their babies safely. And spreading misinformation to further the FIB Foundation agenda is going to do nothing but undermine work which does not need to be made more challenging than it already is. But I guess it’s not our babies who are dying, is it.