The first battle in the "mommy wars," the highly overblown debates over the best ways to raise our children seems to settle on the issue of whether or not to breastfeed. It's hard to avoid the sentiment these days that "breast is best"- heck, it's written right on the can of baby formula! But the senitment that seems to go along with that is that while breast may be best, "formula is fine."
Formula is fine is a consolation to those that can't breastfeed either due to the *extremely* rare inablility to produce adequate milk, or more likely the lack of proper support from other women or professionals to make breastfeeding work, or from birth or post-partum interventions (necessary or not) that interfere with the establishment of breastfeeding. So is it true? Is formula fine?
Well yes, and no.
Does formula keep babies alive and help them to grow? Clearly. Can babies establish healthy, attached relationships with parents and caregivers if they are bottle-fed? Again, sure... we see this all the time. Are some formula-fed babies incredibly healthy their entire lives, and are some breastfed babies sickly. Undoubtedly. Again, much consolation can be found in the reality that we can always find exhibits of these examples.
But statistics don't really work that way. What statistics tell us is that for every baby or adult that seemingly confounds a statistial factor, there are X number that do not. Overall, formula-fed babies are NOT as healthy as breastfed babies, however much we may wish that were not true. But while breast may be best, the reality is that lots of us, in lots of areas, don't always choose what may be best. While that sentiment might be printed right on formula packaging, warnings about cancer have been printed right on cigarettes for years, but they still fly off the shelves. We don't always do what is "best."
So back to the question of whether formula is fine?
If what we want is for babies to stay alive and put on weight, clearly formula will do that job. In fact, it is formulated to do just that. Fine. Right?
Well, let's extrapolate that out. The truth is, with lots of water and meal replacement drinks, adults could stay alive too. We can conceiveably stay alive with the right mix of all-important nutrients. But we all know (or should know) that there are hundreds, even thousands, of factors we don't understand about what makes a truly nutritious diet. Wisdom may differ among various recommendations of science, culture, morality and budget that all contribute to what we eat.
But I doubt that many of us would chuck all that in the long-term because popping the cap on a meal replacement drink multiple times a day is "fine" or sufficient." There is just something in our gut (pardon the pun) that would tell us that it isn't what we need. Not the least signal of this nature would be that *no one around us that is healthy eats like that!*
Choosing formula is making a similar choice. It's not as obvious because food is, well, food -- it doesn't look like a meal replacement drink and baby formula looks to the eye a lot like breastmilk. But that's where the resemblance ends. In truth, But breastmilk is not best... breastmilk just IS. Breastmilk is what babies are supposed to eat. Breastmilk is mysterious and alive and dynamic and provides much, much more than just X nutrient or Y vitamin.
And while formula manufacturers may be touting innovations and improvements all the time, each one of these "advances" simply represents the discovery and approximation of yet another property of breastmilk that it turns out was missing up until that point. And yet they are still not even close. The history of baby formula is a long story of discovering retrospective failures to have provided babies with even a semblance of what is found in breastmilk -- which is what they truly need.
The truth is, we don't know what is wrong with baby formula at any given moment, we only know it in retrospect once we discover something wrong with it, and that's what makes it such an unfortunate "option." Formula is simply a far-inferior attempt to approximate breastmilk. When breastmilk is not available, it is critically imprortant, because of what it is designed to do, keep babies alive and help them to gain weight. And in that case, formula is a necessary stop-gap until babies can get their nutrition from a wider range of foods. But despite what glossy formula pamphlets and benefit-laden advertisements may sell, it is only this, an as-needed back-up, and should not be considered a truly adequate alternative to breastmilk.