Breastfeeding vs. Formula: Navigating the Choices in Real Life

I’m a mother who works for a cancer prevention charity. I’m a mother who knows that breastfeeding is one of our strongest weapons to protect both the mother and child from cancer later in life. And I’m a mother who struggled to follow AICR’s recommendation to breastfeed infants exclusively up to six months.

What’s made me think about this is New York City’s initiative in participating hospitals to restrict access to infant formula in an effort to encourage breast feeding, and whether this is helpful or intrusive? Here’s one article on the program.

On paper – promoting and encouraging breastfeeding is an easy public health fix. Breast milk is free, portable and always at the right temperature. The reality is more complex.

First, not all women are able to breastfeed – infections, sick infants and difficult home environments are just some of the barriers that make it impossible. Second, our physical environment does not always support women breastfeeding outside the home. The dearth of appropriate facilities and sometimes hostile attitudes makes it difficult for mothers – especially those with older children who cannot be housebound. Third, many women simply cannot afford to be without a paycheck for 6 months and manage the considerable challenge of pumping and freezing sufficient breast milk.

Supporting new mothers to breastfeed can only be a good thing, if they are willing and able; there are considerable short and long term health benefits for both mother and child. But this is best accomplished through effective education that shares the value of breastfeeding and a nurturing approach to encourage success during what can be a traumatic time I know several women who were left feeling guilty at being unable to breastfeed. It cannot be distilled into a simple breastfeeding – good; formula – bad equation.

I found balanced information sites like this helped me and my friends. But, more importantly, the hospital setting is only the start of providing the right environment to support breastfeeding.

The latest evidence shows that breastfeeding lowers the risk for both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer — we wrote about the research in this month’s AICR eNews. This should be a powerful incentive for our society – individuals, employers, city planners and policy makers – to accept the positive impact breastfeeding can have on health and provide the necessary support for women to do it at home, work and in other public places.

My own experience of going back to full time work with a two hour daily commute on public transport meant I stopped breastfeeding at five months. Many women don’t have the chance to reach even five months – that’s their reality.

Deirdre McGinley-Gieser is AICR’s Vice-President for Programs. You can also follow her on Twitter at @DMG_AICR.


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