The Happiest Meal

Feeding babies manufactured formula in a bottle is a recent invention in human history. For hundreds of thousands of years, people fed their babies like every other mammal, with mother’s milk.  If mom or baby just couldn’t make it work, there were two options. One, baby died.  Two, employ a “wet nurse,” a woman who recently had a child and was still making milk, to feed baby.

For much of human history wet nursing was a respected and well-paid profession. Since medieval times wet-nursing was regulated and licensed in many countries. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries, the invention of formula that babies tolerated, along with glass bottles and rubber nipples, killed wet nursing.  The advance of technology that fostered such eager slogans as “live better electrically” and “better living through chemistry,” also led people to believe that formula could be as good for babies as breast milk, maybe even better.

Bottle feeding, like many technologies, seemed easier too.  Breast-feeding requires some initial training for babies and moms.  While most take to it readily, some don’t. But babies take bottles right away.  However, like many new inventions, the later problems with formula turn out to outweigh this temporary convenience.  Formula-fed babies have more colic, constipation, spitting up, and infections.  And now it seems formula feeding can contribute to obesity as well.

Then, these extra baby problems haunt us in the pediatric ER.  Moms come in night and day, their babies having colds, crying with passing hard poops, spitting up all over, and squawling at night from colic.  By then mom’s milk has dried up, and fretting and trying different formulas are their only options.

Changing formulas rarely helps with constipation, reflux, or colic.  But many families continue to believe the advertising that suggests formula is still as good for babies as breast milk. Theses ads are full of smiling babies in sunlit rooms. When babies have crampy guts, they give happy names to the next-try formulas; names like Gentle-ease, Total Comfort, and Good Start Gentle. There are even formulas for toddlers now, as if suddenly cow’s milk isn’t good enough anymore either.

Advertising is an attempt to change perceptions, and it’s part of why many believe the false claim that infant formula is as good for babies as breastfeeding.  As we mentioned above, formula is a relatively recent invention in human history.  Formula has only been around for about a hundred years.  For the previous thousands of years of human history, humans breast-fed like any mammal.

But breast-feeding always had a bit of a stigma.  From ancient Egypt on, nobility felt itself above breast feeding.  Queens and princesses often employed wet nurses, mothers who recently weaned their own babies, to feed their little heirs.  Then, when 20th century technology brought ordinary people the things that only royalty used to have- personal music, indoor plumbing, ready-made meals- it also brought formula.  Now, no one had to breast-feed.

Also, the formula manufacturers advertised their products as being as good as, if not better than, breast-feeding.  Formula feeding certainly seemed more convenient, and the companies promised that babies would be even healthier with their synthetic milk.  Even today there’s a misperception among consumers, and even some doctors, that recent advances make formula as good as breast milk.  Wrong.

As we mentioned above, breast milk is far healthier for babies- less constipation, colic, and reflux; fewer infections, and a smaller chance of growing up obese.  And there’s one advantage to breast feeding that formula will never erase- the benefits of breast-feeding for mothers.  These mothers lose pregnancy weight more readily, have less post-partum depression, and have lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers.  Also, breast feeding moms don’t have to haul around all those bottles and cans!

Breast-feeding does require some training for moms and babies that bottle feeding doesn’t.  Fortunately, hospitals like Lafayette General recognize the health benefits of breast-feeding, and have special nurses to help new moms and babies from day one.  Infants are also designed to survive the first few days of low milk output and training- they are born with extra “water-weight” to get them through until mom’s milk is all in. But if you and your baby are one of the few who just can’t breast-feed, there’s still formula.

Or maybe find yourself a wet nurse.