Cigarettes & Formula: The Secret Conspiracy


There's only one way to start this blog and it's like this: I don't give a shit how you feed your kids. I don't care what decision you make and why you make it. Whatever your decision, as long as your babies are fed, I don't care whether it's fresh from source or formula, whether it's boob or bottle. This is not a blog designed to incite bitching and moaning about breastfeeding vs bottle feeding. It's an argument that's sooo 2013 and frankly we're all bored. I'm starting from the premise that, as mothers and women we are all on the same team and therefore passionate about supporting each other in the decisions we make.

That said, there is something I wasn't aware of that has blown me away. My struggle to breastfeed my first born has been well documented on this blog - we don't need to drag that sorry story to the surface again - but it's important to say that the whole experience left me traumatised and depressed. Bullied by health visitors, judged by other mothers, vilified by other decision to throw formula at my breast-based problems was not an easy one to make or to deal with the fall-out of. Not only was my self-esteem at an all time low, it affected my bond with my baby and my perception of my abilities as a mother.

I'm not the only one that felt like this. Recently, there does seem to have been a turn in the tide regarding this. With the birth of my second baby, the discussion of breast vs bottle amongst my midwives and health visitors was a much more balanced affair...but then, I was more balanced. I was more confident in my role as a mother and in the decisions I was going to make. If breastfeeding worked second time around then great, if not I was going back to the bottle and the formula and I was totally at peace with that.

As it turned out, breastfeeding did work the second time around. Not a crack, a blister, a drop of blood in sight. No mastitis, no thrush infection in my nipple. I can't tell you why my second experience was so wildly different to my first. I'm sure the stress free birth had something to do with it, the fact that it wasn't my first rodeo also probably helped but essentially, my second baby was a different baby and things turned out differently because of this.

The reason I'm banging on about all of this, I suppose, is to reinforce the fact that I'm not here to promote any version of feeding. Yes, I support women's right not to breastfeed if they don't want to or can't, but I also have loved breastfeeding my second baby. I'm more about supporting mothers and what's best for them than a idealogical 'truth' that has been constructed amongst the medical world with little thought for the real women it's affecting.

So, imagine my surprise when a midwife-in-training (i.e. someone with up to date information) told me that midwives are not allowed to suggest formula as an option to any mama. If hospitals want to be eligible for a UNICEF rating, this rule must be adhered by. Of course, if a mama asks for formula then they are allowed to provide it but I know that as a first time mama in hospital, I wouldn't have dared asked for formula and yet maybe if I'd been offered some I would have put less pressure on myself, I would have felt less anxiety and maybe, just maybe, my breastfeeding journey would have been a bit different if I'd been presented with an option other than, 'Just keep feeding through the pain and the blood and the thrush and the mastitis.'

But the conspiracy against formula feeding doesn't end there. Supermarkets are not allowed to promote it. They are not allowed to provide offers on formula. They are not allowed to visually merchandise it. In other words, formula must stay firmly on a shelf at the back of a shop. They are not allowed to include the cost of formula in any loyalty programmes. One woman complained to the head office in Tesco once when she didn't get fuel vouchers even though she'd spent enough money to warrant them. Their response? "We don't include the formula in the costs because we feel that formula feeding is unethical."

Wow. Who knew Tesco was such an expert when it came to the nutritional needs of babies? Nice of them to take it upon themselves to dictate to mothers what they should and shouldn't feed their babies.

It doesn't end there - have you ever noticed how any advert on TV or in magazines for formula is always for 'Follow On Milk'? In other words, it's just about ok to promote formula after 6 months. But here's a secret: follow on milk is more or less exactly the same as formula you would give to a newborn. They only reason it exists is because formula companies are allowed to advertise it. Without a 'follow on' product they wouldn't get a slice of the advertising cake. Formula aimed at newborns and babies under 6 months is not allowed any advertising space on TV or in magazine or, in fact, anywhere. Even when they are allowed to advertise, it's not permitted without the 'caveat' that breastfeeding is best for your baby.

All this got me know how people bang on about 'nipple confusion'? The idea that if you're breastfeeding and you give a baby a bottle or a dummy they will, all of a sudden, lose the ability to breastfeed? We hear it all the time, and I'm not ashamed to admit that it worried me with my second baby. Breastfeeding was going so well, but as a self-employed mama, I had to go back to work almost immediately and the only way I could do that was if I gave Bo a bottle. I worried that I would ruin this breastfeeding experience before it had even started and so I put off giving her a bottle. In the end, it was completely fine. I mean, there was absolutely no fall out. Nothing at all. Nearly five months on she drinks formula from a bottle and happily guzzles on my boob too. But, knowing what I do about the conspiracy to keep formula as far under the radar as possible, I can't help but wonder whether this 'nipple confusion' thing is just another way to keep formula down.

Listen, to give Tesco some credit, they are bound by the law as is every other supermarket and retailer in the UK. Our very own government has put these laws in place, in a silent but deadly effort to promote breastfeeding. But here's the problem. All too often, breastfeeding isn't a choice. Sure, some women choose not to breastfeed for personal reasons. Fine. More often than not though, women don't breastfeed because they can't. When I say 'can't', I don't mean that they physically couldn't...I mean that, when they balanced up the pain and trauma of breastfeeding against their own mental wellbeing they decided that the maths didn't work out. That is just as much 'not being able to breastfeed' as having two dry norks.

You know the other product that is allowed absolutely no advertising space? Cigarettes. Yep. Apparently, the government feels that formula must be as damaging as cigarettes; so much so that it is a crime to advertise them. Even if that's not what they believe, that's the message. Even cigarettes were allowed a front row spot in the shop until recently which is more than formula has ever been given. And, while I'm no expert, I'd hazard a guess that buying half price Vodka at record low prices is likely to be more damaging to anyone necking it than formula is to a baby but that doesn't stop shops piling it high and selling it cheap, it doesn't stop it being plastered of billboard and magazines and it doesn't stop every other advert being for an alcoholic drink.

Of course, the government makes a shit load of tax from cigarettes and alcohol though doesn't it. Silly me.

So why does this outrage me so? It outrages me because it removes our choice. It undermines our right to make our own decisions about how we raise our children, and how we use our bodies. It is government-sanctioned manipulation of an entire sector of people that are enormously underrepresented in the institution implementing it. It's another example of the patriarchy issuing control over something that is not theirs to control. It's a PR campaign based on fear and lies and it's wrong.

I'm not suggesting that we should be offering half-price formula (although that would be nice!) but let's set up a level playing field. Why shouldn't formula companies be allowed to advertise? Why shouldn't parents using formula be allowed access to a deal here and there? Why is the government so insistent on making formula a dirty word? Formula is not a dirty word, it's a choice and it's outrageous that mothers are being made to feel like shit because the perception of formula as a terrible thing is being reinforced on a daily basis by those in power.