I recently saw an analogy comparing formula with wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are fantastic if you can’t walk. When my oldest son was a toddler, he thought the rows of wheelchairs at the hospital entrance were the coolest thing ever. But no one would suggest that wheelchairs are just as good as walking or that everyone should use them or even that we should all have one around “just in case”. No one would ever suggest that a wheel chair should be the first thing to try if walking didn’t come easily right away. Similarly, sometimes formula can be a great resource for helping babies that can’t get enough milk from their mothers. But giving a baby formula is not the same as breastfeeding and will never be a complete substitute for mother’s milk. It is not just as good as mother’s milk, or something that everyone should use, or even have around “just in case”.
If your baby isn’t thriving when you feed him the normal way that babies eat — your own milk at your breast — then lactation consultants are here to help you try to get there. If your baby isn’t growing well, then first of all he needs as much of your milk as possible. If he needs still more to eat, then the best supplement is milk from other mothers. The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine recommends pasteurized human donor milk. You can learn more about using or donating milk from the Mother’s Milk Association of Wisconsin.
I realize that donor milk just isn’t a feasible option for everyone that needs to supplement right now (cost and access are still a problem). If you need to supplement with formula it can be hard to find information about formula that isn’t advertising from the people that are selling formula. A good place to start would be a local (ok, Milwaukee — so almost local) pediatrician’s website, Dr. Jenny Thomas. If you want to read more about issues surrounding the additives DHA and ARA, check out Marsha Walker’s new report. The World Health Organization has a publication (available on-line) with guidelines for safe preparation of powdered formula.
Finally, this is a hard topic because it has become associated with whether or not a mother is a “good” mother. I’d like to use the wheelchair analogy one more time. Using a wheelchair is not about being “good” or “bad”. It’s about using the tools you need to get along. I think when mothers have good breastfeeding information and support (family, friends, health care, and workplace) that formula can move out of the “good” or “bad” categories and into its true place as the safest substitute we have when there isn’t enough mother’s milk available.