Breast Milk vs Infant Formula: Our Foremothers Knew Best

One of the hardest decisions for some new mothers today is whether or not to breastfeed their babies.  And although their natural, maternal instincts might give them a nudge towards breastfeeding, the call of our modern day society will often yank them to the nearest baby aisle to purchase a can of infant formula. Let’s face it-the grocery store aisle is a well established path that has been taken by most of our lactating sisters in modern society.  And unfortunately, most of us fall prey and take the path of least resistance.  But why is that?  Why aren’t we more like our great grandparents or their grandparents before them?


Breastfeeding During a Time When Women Owned Their Bodies


When we look at birthing customs as late as the 17th and 18th centuries,  it appears that breastfeeding was a naturally perfect business solution for European working class women because it benefited their families in the following ways: 


(1) It nourished their babies,

(2) It was used as a contraceptive to assist with birth spacing, and

(3) It allowed them to earn an income by becoming a wet nurse for wealthy women


Not surprisingly, wealthy women on the other side of the royal gates were highly discouraged from breastfeeding.  Unlike their working class sisters, they were expected to bear many children for their respective monarchies and since breastfeeding would possibly act as a contraceptive, it was frowned upon.   Therefore, they used their female slaves (if they had them) or they hired working class women to be their wet nurses.


Needless to say, as Europeans migrated to the Americas, they continued with this highly popular system of breast feeding.  It worked primarily because the whole birthing process was controlled completely by women, such as midwives, female relatives and neighbors. Men were generally off doing “men” activities, and had absolutely no interest in being a part of a woman’s care…that is until they saw dollar signs.


Monetizing Women’s Care


Fast forward to 19th century America and you will find that things were changing rapidly. Male doctors had replaced midwives and I guess it should go without saying that if your function is deemed passé, your once expert advice is soon to follow.  The  newly found “father knows best” advice of male doctors replaced the sage wisdom of midwives in the birthing business.   And since this new, sophisticated mother was “hanging onto her doctor’s every word,” it’s not surprising that she would soon ditch the whole “dated” concept of breastfeeding and readily embrace the new instant infant food options that her burgeoning country was headed towards.


Introducing -Drum Roll Please…..Instant Infant Formula


Not to be economically outdone by their European peers, American doctors and businessmen kept a watchful eye on the European market, and by 1967, the European chemist Baron Justus von Liebig gave them just what they were looking for-a highly successful processed food for babies.   There had been other versions of artificial baby milk formulated by other chemist; however, they did not fare as well as Liebig’s.  And as they say in business, timing is everything.  Hence, American businessmen wanted to capitalize on the milk of this very lucrative cash cow.


While Liebig originally formulated his baby food out of personal necessity, American businessmen marketed the concoction in the US as an equal-if not better substitute to breastfeeding.  American doctors “bought into the concept” and began to advise their patients that it was no longer appropriate for them to breastfeed, and before you knew it, Liebig’s instant formulas was being sold in America by 1869.


Soon after, Nestle capitalized on the “infant formula is better” bandwagon and created his version of “better than breast milk,” infant formula. Everyone raved about it- both doctors and middle class mothers who switched to instant formulas agreed that it was the best food for their growing babies.  And, as with everything else in a society defined by social stratification, the ideology trickled down to working class mothers who eventually bought into the marketing ploy and began feeding their babies  infant formula too.


Cash Cow’s Milk on Steroids-No Pun Intended


We’re now in the 21st century and the growth of the instant infant formula business is one of the most recession proof businesses in the world.  It’s extension into the global market place; coupled with the strong partnership that infant formula manufacturers have with healthcare professionals, has created a money making machine that generated $36.7 billion in 2012.  So it’s not surprising that soon after a newborn baby takes its first breath, a smiling nurse is right there to put a bottle in it’s mouth.  And while this scenario might be the norm; fortunately, there has been a slow, yet steady increased interest in breastfeeding, and this new genre of informed mothers has begun to re-claim the natural purpose of their breasts.


Breast Milk is the New Fad


During the past decade, there has been a huge global reform from healthcare professionals, The World Health Organization, midwives, and mothers for women to return to breastfeeding, and as a result, breastfeeding has been increasingly on the rise. This strong comeback is probably due to the fact that scientific research demonstrates that breast milk is extremely superior to instant infant formulas in the following ways:


Important Facts about Breastfeeding


  • It builds your baby’s immune system,
  • It protects against lymphomacrohn’s diseasetype 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma and allergies, respiratory infections, eczema, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis,
  • It improves your baby’s brain functions, It helps your baby to be more emotionally secure because you are bonding closely together,
  • It improves your baby’s IQ, 
  • It saves you thousands of dollars, and
  • There are at least 400 nutrients in breast milk that processed milk cannot duplicate.


These nutrients work in tandem (because they’re naturally found in breast milk), which maximizes their nutritional effectiveness. Conversely, any isolated, synthetic vitamin that is found in infant formulas offers no real nutritional value. Synthetic vitamins lack the synergy of multiple nutrients working together that vitamins derived from whole foods, such as breast milk, would have.


Where Do We Go From Here?

While the scientific research is very compelling, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of increasing the number of mothers who breastfeed.


It’s understandable that many women are still undecided about whether or not to breastfeed their babies, and reasons vary from the fact that they view instant formulas as a fashionable trend to the fact that instant formulas are more convenient, especially if you are a working mother.  


In America, the biggest group to lag behind in breastfeeding are African American women -probably for the same reasons as other mothers.  The good news is that there are sites such as Blacktating, that might be of great support and possibly provide the much needed resources to help get them started.  


Lastly, there are other alternatives if a mother is unable to breastfeed (unfortunately it happens),  such as using a wet-nurse, using a breast milk bank, or making your own healthy, homemade recipe of infant formula.  A homemade recipe might not be breast milk, but at least mothers can control the ingredients to ensure that they are natural, and/or organic, and preservative free.



Here’a a Video of a Mom Making Infant Formula



Battling It Out for the Infant Formula Market