Baby bottles, boards and making mums feel like Hitler

This advert is causing a bit of controversy: it’s an EU ad about work/life balance, and it shows a laptop and a baby bottle.

There’s a very impassioned argument against it here:

But when I see a media image of a baby bottle…
…I see death.
I see all the the real maggots crawling in all the real bottles.
I see the tiny white bundles being put in the shallow shallow graves.
I see corporate greed and profiteering, being put before baby’s lives.

It’s a bit dramatic for my taste, but she does have a point. There are risks to bottle feeding, especially in developing countries.

The water mixed with baby milk powder can be unsafe and it is often impossible in poor conditions to keep bottles and teats sterile. Bottle feeding under such circumstances can lead to infections causing diarrhoea, the biggest killer of children worldwide.

Baby milk is also very expensive, often costing more than half the entire family income. This means that bottle feeding will contribute to family malnutrition. Furthermore, poor mothers trying to make the milk go further sometimes overdilute the powder, and the baby may not then receive the nutrition he or she needs.
Bottle baby disease is the name given to the deadly combination of diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition which is the result of unsafe bottle feeding.

Even in developed countries there are risks, which is why the NHS offers this advice:

Powdered infant formula milk is not a sterile product, and even though tins and packets of milk powder are sealed, they can contain bacteria such as Enterobacter sakazakii and more rarely Salmonella. If the feed is not prepared safely, these bacteria can cause infections – and even though these are extremely rare, when they do happen they can be life-threatening. Therefore, it is important to make up the formula milk with water at a temperature of around 70ºC.

Factor in the way that formula milk companies have behaved in the past and you can understand why people might be dead against formula. However, on mums’ discussion boards that’s often translated into something a bit different: posts telling mums that if they bottle feed their kids, they’re trying to kill them.

Here’s an example from This one’s a fairly innocuous example, because while I’ve seen much more aggressive posts on the subject I forgot to bookmark the links. Anyway. The post title:

higher risk of cot death in formula fed

The post links to this news story:

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID) announces its latest advice that breastfeeding your baby can reduce the risk of cot death.

In the footnotes, the article links to various studies, including this one (emphasis mine), which is the one I’ve seen posted most often to support Formula Is Evil posts:

A history of breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of many diseases in infants and mothers from developed countries. Because almost all the data in this review were gathered from observational studies, one should not infer causality based on these findings. Also, there is a wide range of quality of the body of evidence across different health outcomes.

Back to iVillage. The original post has sparked a debate, and this post is fairly typical.

The exact reason that fewer breastfeeded babies die from cot death is actually unknown.

Which is true.

(mainly because so many of the properties of breastmilk are still unknown. And because they change form baby to baby, day to day and morning to night.)

That’s not so true. The reason we don’t know why fewer breastfed babies die of SIDS is because we still don’t know what causes SIDS.

However the most popular theories that i have heard have been these:

That as the protective properties of breastmilk result in far fewer illness and infections, this in turn is thought to lower the chances of cot death.

That as breastmilk is more easily digested by babies, and does not over fill their tummies, breastfed babies do not fall into such a deep sleep. It is thought the deeper sleep that formula milk produces, makes it harder for a baby to wake it’s self when it has difficulty breathing. (the scary sudden jolt and then deep breath, that is often seen in tiny babies).

But they’re just theories.

Here’s another theory. It could be the environment around breastfeeding in the developed world. Let’s have a look at Glasgow, courtesy of the Evening Times.

In the East End just 14% of mums were breastfeeding alone at six to eight weeks compared with 32.2% in the West End. Statisticians say there is a clear link between breastfeeding rates and levels of deprivation.

Glaswegians are all too familiar with the grim statistics coming out of different parts of the city. The Herald:

In some postcode areas in the east end, 60% of children live in workless households, almost 50% of adults of working age are on incapacity benefit and life expectancy can be as low as 54.

The contrast with some west end postcodes is staggering, where life expectancy is over 80, fewer than 5% of children live in workless households and there are virtually no benefit claimants.

I’ll cheerfully admit to doing what some of the anti-formula mums do on boards: I’m taking two different things and sticking ’em together to support the particular argument I want to make – which is that if breastfeeding is more common among well-off, well-educated people with excellent support networks and the like, in areas where fewer people smoke and exist on poor quality food, then it’s hardly surprising that health outcomes for kids are better in those areas. It could be the breastfeeding, but equally it could be that people aren’t sterilising the bottles properly. Or it could be the better food, the nicer houses or the proximity to really good restaurants. I’m not a scientist, and I’m not an expert in this field, so I have absolutely no bloody idea.

Which is why I’m not hanging around parenting discussion boards shouting OMG FORMULA WILL KILL YOUR KIDS or OMG FORMULA IS TEH BEST.

But some people are, and when I see mums try to argue against it – without disputing that breast is indeed best – they’re jumped on. People post links to scientific papers they haven’t read, or to articles whose footnotes make a very different point to the one they’re trying to make, or to other people’s interpretations of scientific papers they haven’t read, and they argue again and again that formula milk is by definition bad. Which would be fine if every single woman could breastfeed, but every single woman can’t. Some can’t for physical reasons, others because they can’t afford to stay at home with the baby. And in those circumstances, telling a mum she’s a child killer really isn’t very helpful.

Back to the advert. This time, a discussion about it on Mumsnet – from which I got the impassioned blog link.

However the fact that some parents need to, and some parents choose to bottle feed does not make it OK for governments to portray it as ‘normal’ or aspirational. Its not the same as breastfeeding and we shouldn’t have to apologise for wanting more babies to be fed in the optimal way.

All too often, though, the issue of whether governments should promote breastfeeding gets confused, and manifests itself on messageboards where mums tell other mums that bottle feeding is bad. Most women who don’t breastfeed are ill-informed, the argument goes. Which may be true, but most is not the same as all. Not all women who choose bottle feeding are doing it because they’re uninformed, or because they’re lazy, or because they’re influenced by the evil marketing of formula companies. “We shouldn’t have to apologise for wanting more babies to be fed in the optimal way” is fair enough, but the mums who don’t go that route shouldn’t have to apologise or feel guilty either.

Should formula companies be ashamed of themselves for the way they’ve marketed their products? Sure. Should more effort be devoted to encouraging mums to breastfeed? Absolutely. Should mums who can’t or won’t breastfeed be made to feel like Hitler? I’d like to think not. Messageboards can be a lifeline for new parents, and they get enough crap without getting more of it online.





0 responses to “Baby bottles, boards and making mums feel like Hitler”

  1. Simon Pearson

    Of course, who says the bottle has formula in anyway, it could just as well be expressed milk..

  2. Gary

    Or a baby-quieting White Russian :)

  3. Thanks for this Gary. We’re certainly going to be trying to breast feed for as long as we can (perhaps we’ll stop before they start going to school) but I appreciate your common sense here. So often (and I’m guilty of this as much as anyone) we can all get upset about something because we misinterpret the facts.

    Breast is best, for sure. Wife is a nurse and we can afford for her to take 6, 7 months off. Not everyone can do that.

    Surely yours is onto deep-fried pizzas by now? ;)

  4. I took Madame to the park last week. There were two young mums at a picnic table with their babies in prams. On the table, they had the formula box, the cooled boiled water, empty bottles, and a six pack of alcopops. 2 PM, broad daylight.

    Moral being: no matter how much you nitpick about yourself as a parent, if you give a damn, you’re still doing better by your child than a lot others.

  5. Firstly, Simon’s right. Expressing is such a common practice now that it would never occur to me to assume that bottle equals formula.

    Secondly, I’ve blogged a big fat response.

  6. Gary

    Ooh, good post. Naturally I’m a bit more placid than you are, but I agree entirely about the moral crusade and (some) pushy midwives. I wasn’t going to put personal experience into the post, but as you’ve mentioned your own situation here’s mine: Baby Bigmouth wouldn’t breastfeed either, and because she arrived late she was much bigger and much hungrier than the average baby. So in the first few days in hospital she was actually malnourished. Mrs B tried and tried and tried, but the wee one simply wouldn’t do it. So like you we ultimately had the choice of formula or fuck-all.

    I don’t think everybody in the NHS is pushy – we had some great health visitors – but yeah, some of them are pro-breastfeeding to the point where they’ll go OTT and make mums who can’t breastfeed keep trying until they’re on the edge of a breakdown.

    Good point about adoptive parents too.

    I think ultimately this is becoming yet another faith based argument. There is One True Way and anybody who doesn’t agree is to be pitied and hectored. Not all pro-breast posters are like that, but there are enough who are to make things unpleasant.

  7. Gary

    Heather, alcopops in the daytime seems like a pretty good reaction to the stress of parenting to me ;-)

    > if you give a damn, you’re still doing better by your child than a lot others.

    Oh god, yeah. The things I’ve seen…

  8. Gary


    > So often (and I’m guilty of this as much as anyone) we can all get upset about something because we misinterpret the facts.

    Oh, absolutely. The problem (to me at least) is that facts can be elusive, especially when it comes to health, and if I hear the words “precautionary principle” one more time I’m going to get myself a gun and go postal :)

    One of the worst things about being a parent IMO, other than the sleep deprivation, is that every single person in the world believes you’re doing it wrong and will tell you.

    I’m sure I meant to ask this before. Are you and Mrs Rutty expecting your first, or do you have kids already?

  9. This is our first.

    My wife has some good friends with three kids and she’s almost been a second mother to them. Lots of practice with babies, so she’s well prepared.

    Me, on the other hand….

    We’ve been shopping for prams. The system we like (in Mamas and Papas) including the carseat costs more than I sold my previous car for on eBay. Prams > Fiat Bravo apparently :(

  10. Gary

    Sounds about right, yeah. There’s loads of stuff that you think you need but probably don’t. Unfortunately prams don’t fall into that category. If you haven’t bought one already, don’t worry too much about ones that double as moses baskets or buggies: babies outgrow the former very fast and by the time you can use a pram as a buggy, you’d be better off with a buggy. Considerably less effort to shove around or to take in and out of cars, shops etc.

    If there’s any advice I can offer, please yell, DM on twitter or whatever. I’m no expert but I’ve made (and hopefully learned from) lots and lots and lots of mistakes :)

    When’s the wee one due?

  11. Gary

    Sorry, one more thing: before you buy anything kit-related at all, ask other parents about it. A lot of times they’ll say “nah, never used it” or “my god, that was a pile of crap” or sometimes, “best thing ever”. What the mags say you need and what parents know you need are often very different things. And if you’ve got a choice between buying and borrowing, borrow :)

  12. Squander Two

    > as you’ve mentioned your own situation

    I’m slapping my forehead here, as I realise that in fact I didn’t quite, and so I missed another category of mothers who can’t breastfeed: the ones who have post-natal complications which either put them into hospital away from their baby or put them onto drugs which turn their milk dangerous or both. Daisy wouldn’t breastfeed anyway, but that was only an issue for the first week. After that, Vic was on Warfarin for about a year, and breastfeeding would have caused Daisy serious harm. Apparently, blood clots aren’t particularly uncommon after birth, especially caesarians, so there must be a lot of new mums on Warfarin. For whose babies, again, formula is literally a life-saver.

    > There’s loads of stuff that you think you need but probably don’t. Unfortunately prams don’t fall into that category.

    I keep meaning to write a big post about what’s useful and what isn’t. Now’s as good a time as any. I’ll let you know when it’s up.

  13. Gary

    Yeah, do that, I’ll link to it here and add anything I think of.

  14. Gary

    > I missed another category of mothers who can’t breastfeed

    I was thinking of Vic when I wrote the post, but I’m wary of discussing friends in public even when I don’t identify them.

  15. Squander Two

    We’re both of the opinion that people should learn from what happened to us, so, as long as you don’t get bits wrong, discuss away.

  16. Here’s me list. Hope it’s some use to you, Rutty.

  17. Gary

    Good list. I’ve added a couple of things in the comments.

  18. Cheers guys! It’s much appreciated.

    We’re lucky in that we have lots of friends that have had babies and we’re getting loads of advice from them too. We’re trying not to buy anything if we can help it, although we do want to get a new pram/stroller thingy and carseat. We’re looking at a “pramette” which is essentially just a stroller but with the ability to lie the baby flat. Should last us a couple of years.

    Baby Rutt is due in September. Preparing for our world to be turned upside down – in a very, very good way :)

  19. Gary

    It’s an adventure, that’s for sure :)