Formula-fed infants at risk thanks to 'breast is best' approach, says researcher

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well-established, but not every new mother can do it. Those who can't are finding themselves relying on expensive formula — sometimes having to forage for it online or in food banks — with little help from health policy that insists "breast is best."

Lesley Frank went 'foraging for formula' to help poorer women cope

The high price of formula, and an emphasis on breastfeeding, can leave poorer women at a disadvantage, said Lesley Frank, a sociologist at Acadia University. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)
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Health policies that insist "breast is best" ignore the problems faced by mothers who cannot breastfeed and may struggle to find reliable sources of formula, according to one researcher.

"Infants ... that are formula-fed, I actually think they're the most food-insecure citizens of Canada," said Lesley Frank, a sociologist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

"Because they only eat one thing, and it's not easy to find."

On its website, the Public Health Agency of Canada says it "supports and promotes breastfeeding as the normal and unequalled way to provide optimal nutritional, immunological and emotional nurturing of infants and toddlers."

That message is plastered across the walls of Canada's healthcare facilities, but some argue that it has led to mothers who can't breastfeed being shamed, and has inadvertently made life harder for Canada's poorest mothers and their babies.

When push came to shove … you'd go to the store and buy it, and hope nobody saw you.- Lesley Frank on trying to find formula for women, while working for an organization that promoted breastfeeding 

Frank started her career as an outreach worker in the province, promoting breastfeeding among poorer women. But she found that many of those women had problems breastfeeding because they were malnourished themselves, or they didn't have maternity benefits and had to go straight back to work.

She ended up "foraging for formula" to help these women cope, she said, even though that was counter to the position of the organization she worked for.

"You're always caught in this position where you were looking and trying to secure formula, but you would never really want anyone to know that," she said.

"When push came to shove … you'd go to the store and buy it, and hope nobody saw you."

Health Canada recommends breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. (Shutterstock/Prachaya Teerakathiti)

The Current asked federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor for an interview, but did not receive a response.

Government guidelines do say that support for mothers who choose formula, or who are unable to breastfeed, should be included in policy. But Frank, who now studies the issue in her research at Acadia, believes the problem is a national one.

The high price of formula is pushing women to send away for free samples, search food banks, and even plead for trades online, she said.

She showed The Current one online post, which read: "Looking for formula for my five-month-old baby. Sorry I have nothing to trade at the moment. Please contact me if you have any, you can give away. Thanks so much."

Frank said some trades involve packets of formula that are already open, introducing the risk of contaminated food. Mothers, desperate for formula, feel they have little recourse other than to take them.

"When you have to go online, and make public your inability to feed your baby, think of what that must feel like," she said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Produced by Mary-Catherine McIntosh.

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