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OpinionColumnistsRandi Marshall

Don’t be misled about breastfeeding

It’s been more than a decade since I was a new mom. But I thought about it again this week as a battle at the World Health Organization came to light.

The recent clash over breastfeeding serves as a

The recent clash over breastfeeding serves as a reminder that there's still a problem in the messaging.

When I was a new mom, I smelled like maple syrup.

It wasn’t some new perfume given to me as a baby gift. It was the Fenugreek, a natural supplement thought to increase a new mom’s milk supply.

I popped a lot of Fenugreek when my daughter was a newborn. When I wasn’t trying supplements, I was pumping whatever milk I could get, or trying a tube-feeding system that allowed me to supplement my daughter as she tried to breastfeed. When I wasn’t doing that, we were meeting with lactation consultants, who would weigh the baby to see whether she gained even a quarter of an ounce after a feeding.

It was an expensive and exhausting quest, but we tried because we were told, as most new parents are, that breast milk was best. But I lacked the supply to adequately feed my daughter on my own. And despite promises to the contrary, it never picked up. And I felt like a failure, partly because of constant message that breastfeeding is best.

Ultimately, we chose to supplement with formula. I continued to breastfeed my daughter as I could for nearly a year. But she thrived because we had an alternative.

It’s been more than a decade since I was a new mom. But I thought about it again this week as a battle at the World Health Assembly — the decision-making arm of the World Health Organization — came to light.

Ecuador wanted to introduce a resolution that encouraged breastfeeding, and which discouraged misleading marketing by formula manufacturers and others. But then the United States objected and apparently threatened Ecuador and others with trade and military-aid repercussions if they went ahead.

To be sure, the Trump’s administration’s fight wasn’t about helping women unable to breastfeed. Its sudden opposition to a seemingly innocuous resolution likely is about its support of the $70 billion formula industry. Ultimately, a revised resolution passed with U.S. support.

The WHO isn’t wrong to emphasize the benefits of breastfeeding, which is particularly important in developing countries, where infant malnutrition is a significantly high.

But the clash serves as a reminder that there’s still a problem in the messaging, which implies that the only right answer is breastfeeding. It’s simply not true. And it creates a stigma that makes the tough job of being a new mom even tougher.

Instead, the message should be more nuanced: Breastfeed if you can, and for as long as you’re able, but there are alternatives, and your baby will be fine whichever path you chose. A study published last year in The Journal of Pediatrics, for instance, suggested that limited supplementation with formula seems to neither prevent women from continuing to breastfeed as they’re able nor adversely affects the health benefits to infants from whatever breastmilk they do get.

Starting a fight over a WHO resolution supporting breastfeeding doesn’t help. Aimlessly promoting formula, whose manufacturers are at times guilty of inappropriate marketing and misleading advertising, doesn’t either.

But the more we emphasize an honest, nonjudgmental message, one that recognizes that there’s more than one right answer, the happier and healthier both parents and babies will be.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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