Formula feud

Catherine Reid grew up in a small town where the practices surrounding birth and motherhood are pretty clearly spelled out for new moms: you go to the hospital, you have an epidural and your baby is born. You might try to breast-feed, but it’s hard, and there’s always formula. Jennifer Barnette had a similar experience when she moved from Asheville to Statesville. In Statesville, she says, “it’s supplement, supplement, supplement. I was pressured like you would not believe. But where is the support for you as a breast-feeding mother?”

The issue isn’t about the rival between breast milk and formula, but it’s about support and resources, explains Barnette. “I would never down [a mother] because she feeds formula to her child,” she says. “I just don’t know why there’s not support for breast-feeding, especially from women.”

Many women in the Asheville area choose to breastfeed their babies rather than buy formula, often for the claimed health benefits. “Their little bodies are set up for breast milk,” Barnette says. Research has shown that breast milk provides certain immunity benefits to babies, along with a reduced risk of obesity, diabetes and childhood cancers. Breastfeeding is also thought to benefit mothers as well, by reducing the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. “It’s a win-win situation for babies and mamas,” says Susan Mooney, a doula who teaches breast-feeding classes in addition to other forms of support for new mothers. In addition to the health benefits, Mooney believes there is also an emotional component to breast-feeding that women seek. “This is something only she can provide her baby,” Mooney says.

“I was determined [to breast-feed],” says Barnette, “but it was like, well just in case you can’t, here’s formula. … Breastfeeding is not accessible, and I can’t figure out why. It’s not in public. It’s a battle and it shouldn’t be.”

According to Mooney, formula is often thought to be the same as breast milk, when in reality they are very different. “The composition of breast milk varies from day to day, from woman to woman, and it’s specific for that baby,” Mooney says. “Sometimes the American culture thinks that babies should be independent from the time they come out. They see breastfeeding as making the child dependent. Or, they see formula as being easier. It’s not easier.”

Reid struggled a lot when she first started breast-feeding her first son, which brought on a lot of stress and anxiety. “Once I got over the hurdle though, it worked well and it was like ‘Why stop this?’” she says. Reid nursed her son until he was three years old. Barnette had similar experiences with her first daughter. “It was not easy, but with enough determination you can get through it,” Barnette says. Reid adds: “When you really want something, you’ll endure a lot of pain and suffering to make it happen.” With friends and family members supporting their decision to breast-feed, Barnette and Reid were able to work past the first few rocky weeks and months of breast-feeding issues. 

Despite challenges, Reid says the Asheville community may be more open toward breast-feeding than most cities. “Asheville is such an amazing community where I never ever feel odd breast-feeding in public,” Reid says. “I don’t even cover up. I’m just like ‘Hey I’m feeding my baby and it’s awesome. If you have a problem with it, turn the other way. Everybody’s gotta eat.’”

However, Reid recognizes that a mother’s decisions about breast-feeding are very much informed by the people she surrounds herself with and how she was raised. “Let’s say I’m a 17-year-old high school dropout raised in a very poor community, I don’t know if I would know where to go if I wanted to have a natural childbirth and wanted to get support breast-feeding.”

Barnette says that finding support is crucial. “You just need someone you can call on for advice,” she says. “No matter which way [breast-feeding or using formula], what we all need to do is support.”

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