In an effort to promote breastfeeding, Venezuela’s Congress is considering a proposal to ban baby bottles entirely within the country. Odalis Monzon, one of the legislators behind the measure, spoke on state television last Thursday, saying “We want to increase the love (between mother and child) because this has been lost as a result of these transnational companies selling formula.”
The proposed legislation is clearly well-meaning. Scientists and doctors have known for years that breastfeeding has as number of benefits for infants. It protects against common childhood illnesses, lowers a child’s risk of developing obesity and diabetes later in life, and best of all… unlike formula, it’s 100% free.
The legislation also makes sense when you look at how formula has been marketed worldwide. For decades, companies like Nestle pushed formula feeding aggressively in developing nations, giving away free samples in maternity wards and sometimes even hiring sales girls in nurse uniforms to stop by women’s houses.
In poor nations, this was bad news for two reasons. First, mothers would try to “stretch” their supply of formula by diluting it with extra water, resulting in malnourished infants. And second, these women often had little access to clean water, resulting in infants dying of water-borne illnesses.
Due to public backlash in the 70s and 80s, formula manufacturers like Nestle have backed off in how they promote formula in poor countries. But in many ways, the damage has been done. The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, only about 40% of babies are exclusively breast-fed for the first 6 months of life.
It’s easy to understand why Venezuela would want to promote breastfeeding in light of this history with formula companies, but passing laws that place restrictions on women’s parenting choices is not the solution.
The truth is, formula may not be quite as healthy as breast milk, but not all mothers are able to breastfeed. Some mothers may have infectious diseases or be taking medications that prevent them from breastfeeding. Some babies may have trouble latching on. Some women may simply find breastfeeding painful or uncomfortable — or they may not have the time while juggling a home and a career. As millions of adults raised on formula can attest, it is by no means a death sentence.
While the politicians behind the law say that bottles would be allowed in special cases — like the death of the mother, or for women with inadequate milk supply — families would have to individually petition the health ministry to receive an exemption. If a child isn’t able to breastfeed, is it really a good idea to spend hours, days, or weeks waiting for a government exemption? It seems babies would be much healthier if a struggling family could simply go to the grocery store and pick up food for their child as needed.
There’s also another downside to this proposal — it penalizes working moms who want to pump breast milk for their children. Very few workplaces would allow a woman to bring her child to the office for the first six months or year of life to breastfeed every few hours. (And employers are already likely to look down on breastfeeding employees anyway.) Without bottles, how is a woman supposed to store pumped milk for her child?
In the end, laws like this end up hurting the very women and children they claim to protect. Hopefully, Venezuela will do the right thing and shoot this proposal down this week.
Photo credit: Tom & Katrien via Flickr