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My Mother's Day Dream

This Mother’s Day, I would like to thank a special group of mothers. Breastfeeding is alive in the United States because of them. Fifty six years ago a group of mothers in Chicago resisted social and medical advice and refused to formula feed their babies. This group developed into La Leche League, which to this day provides mother-to-mother support for breastfeeding.

Another consumer led breastfeeding effort is happening in the year 2012. Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group founded in 1971, has launched a petition to stop the free distribution of formula in hospitals. They claim that free formula samples undermine breastfeeding. Fortunately almost all Lincoln and Omaha hospitals have now stopped providing free formula.

It is a paradox. We encourage mothers to breastfeed, but we often provide free formula in hospitals, doctor’s offices and food supplement programs, such as WIC. Public health experts promote human milk as the “gold standard” of infant food. Yet we seldom provide the support that a mother needs to make breastfeeding work, including the “next best alternative.”

What happens when a mom encounters difficulties with her milk supply? What if her supply is low despite frequent breastfeeding? What if her baby has a cleft palate and does not remove milk well and she is married to her breast pump? What if she is back at work and struggling to maintain her supply despite frequent pumping? What if she has no paid sick time for a maternity leave and her baby is slow to breastfeed well? What about the adoptive baby whose mother tries to bring in her milk supply, but cannot?

No mother should feel guilty (or frustrated) about how she feeds her baby, especially if she has no other choice than to use formula. A question remains, though. Is there a better alternative?

Throughout history, babies have been fed milk from other mothers. Is this ideal? No, but it is the next best thing. The World Health Organization has prioritized options for babies unable to feed well directly at the breast. They are, in order of preference: 1) a mother’s own expressed milk, 2) heat treated donor breastmilk, and then 3) infant formula (usually made from cow’s milk).

How can we make donor milk available, safe and affordable for babies who need it? Informal sharing of milk may expose a baby to unnecessary risks. Screened, pasteurized donor milk from the small handful of human milk banks in our country is currently expensive and hard to access.

Is there another option? Could we divert all the taxpayer dollars that go into purchasing formula for low income babies through WIC, all the money parents spend on formula and all the formula advertising dollars, and put them into organizing a milk bank in every community? In my wildest dreams, could we pay moms to sell their extra milk to the milk banks, which would allow moms to earn an income while they are breastfeeding their own babies? This might allow us to provide reasonably priced, screened and pasteurized human milk for human babies, no matter how much milk a mother is able to produce or how well a baby is able to feed at the breast.

We could end the debate. Babies would get food designed for their bodies. Moms could let go of the guilt and frustration.

I’m going to keep on dreaming……..

What’s YOUR dream for Mother’s Day?