An unscientific debate over breast milk is spilling into food banks | An unscientific debate over breast milk is spilling into food banks

An overzealous push for breastfeeding is affecting availability of baby formula in food banks, worsening problems for the poorest people, writes Clare Wilson


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27 January 2021

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WITH many people enduring extreme hardship because of the covid-19 pandemic, food banks in the UK are providing a more important function than ever. These vital institutions, funded mainly through public donations, act as a safety net so those in financial crisis at least don’t go hungry.

But there is one section of society who cannot always benefit from their support, and they are among the most vulnerable group of all: infants. In the UK, most babies are entirely or mainly dependent on formula milk.

Baby milk takes up a hefty chunk of a low-income family’s food budget. It can cost up to £30 a week and most food banks don’t stock formula milk because it is seen as clashing with breastfeeding promotion.


Some local authorities and health boards explicitly tell food banks not to supply it, often citing recent UN guidelines on the issue, according to a recent report from Feed, a Scottish-based charity that aims to provide impartial advice on infant feeding.

The resistance to providing formula milk stems from a long-running dispute over infant feeding. In the past, some manufacturers wrongly claimed that their formula milk was the healthiest choice. Today, we know that breast milk contains a range of beneficial substances like antibodies that fight off microbes and there is some evidence that breastfed babies have fewer infections in their first year of life.

But many of the broader claims about the benefits that breastfeeding can lead to in later life, like protecting against obesity and asthma, and raising IQ, may not be true. Studies suggest that these apparent correlations arise because, in high-income countries like the UK, breastfeeding is more common among better-off families.

Child health organisations tend to say that if families have a baby that they can’t feed, they need specialist help, which is best given by referring them to health or social services. This can take time, however, and people are resorting to watering down formula or giving unsuitable milk alternatives, which risks babies’ health, Feed’s investigation has found.

It isn’t as if families can simply switch from formula milk to breastfeeding if financial circumstances change. When someone stops breastfeeding, or doesn’t start, milk production ceases. So saying that someone ought to breastfeed when they are unable to is about as helpful as saying someone ought not to be poor.

Health benefits aside, not everyone can breastfeed. For example, a woman may not make enough milk or be on medication that would be harmful for their baby if they did breastfeed.

Breastfeeding can also be painful and take up a lot of time and effort. It is often said that breastfeeding is free, but that is only the case if you view women’s time and labour as financially worthless.

In other words, breast isn’t always best, and only the people involved can decide if the health benefits outweigh any toll to well-being to make that decision.

In the past decade or so, breastfeeding promotion has been overzealous, making some who use formula milk feel so guilty it threatens their mental health. It has triggered a backlash from groups, such as Fed is Best, that say the health system shouldn’t try to control people’s bodies in this way.

People who have so little money that they need handouts of food may be in no position to argue with health workers over their personal autonomy – but it is a disgrace that the often unscientific debate over breast milk versus baby formula is harming the most vulnerable. It has to stop.

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