The Study Claiming That Formula Promotes Breastfeeding Is Really Shady

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baby feeding from bottle

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge proponent of breastfeeding. I nursed all of my kids past the six months recommended by the World Health Organization and I used to be an active La Leche League volunteer.  That being said, I am the first to admit that breastfeeding is hard. You get chaffed nipples and there are constant feedings. Not to mention the swelling and the overwhelming feeling that our body just isn’t yours anymore. The last thing you need when you are trying to nurse for the first time is a distraction. So you will have to excuse me if I get a little ragey about this new study performed by the University of California, San Francisco that suggests that a small amount of formula given to certain infants may, in fact, increase breastfeeding rates.

The line of thinking is that this little boost may give new moms a feeling of assurance which can help them through the first few weeks of nursing. Of course there is already backlash, and for good reason.

The study, which was published in The Journal of Pediatrics, followed 40 newborns for three months. To be eligible, the babies studied had to have lost five percent or more of their original body weight by their second day of life.

What isn’t mentioned is that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics a weight loss of seven percent on average is considered normal within the first 24-48 hours. It’s only when an infant has lost 10 percent or more than doctors become concerned about potential health risks. My first child, who I nursed successfully for 14 months, lost around five percent of her body weight initially.

By the end of the study, 79 percent of the new moms told to supplement with formula were breastfeeding exclusively. Only 42 percent of the mothers in the breast-only group were still feeding some the breast alone.

The problem with this study is that 40 infants is way too small of a group to give a conclusive picture of how formula effects breastfeeding rates. Dr. Kathleen Marinelli, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and the chair-elect of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, has the same idea. She tells Time magazine:

“This study goes against everything that’s been published for several years now from very reliable clinicians and researchers about the potential hazards of supplementing exclusively breast-feeding babies with formula…They’re flying in the face of years of research here and doing so rather glibly, stating that this is the new way to look at things.”

It’s already an uphill battle to breastfeed successfully in the U.S. Between nurses who question a new mom’s abilities, to formula makers who shove their wares down your throat the moment you give birth via a bribe diaper bag-swag filled with formula, we’re given a ton of mixed messages about what is best for our babies.

When I had my younger daughter I was basically bullied into formula use. The nurse told me straight out that nursing is hard and I would probably give up. Another nurse gave my daughter formula behind my back and repeatedly kept her in the nursery after I requested to room in. I did eventually breastfeed for nine months but the lack of encouragement in the beginning was hard and if I hadn’t nursed my first child for over a year, I probably would have given up.

In some cases formula is absolutely necessary, and obviously using it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Formula is a legitimate choice that should be left up to the new parents and their doctor. But women who want to nurse should be encouraged to do so and claiming that formula actually helps breastfeeding is a step in the wrong direction that will do more harm than good. The last thing we need is a half-assed study.

(Photo: Belinda Pretorius / Shutterstock)