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Why Powdered Milk Can Be Bad for Your Baby…and Your Pocket

May 16, 2012

Breastfeeding is the single most effective measure to prevent child mortality and morbidity. It is so effective because it keeps children safe from water borne diseases such as diarrhea. This is only more true in emergency situations when clean water is lacking. This is a fact that nobody would dispute. As a result the official guideline for nutrition in emergency endorsed by UN agencies is to promote exclusive breastfeeding  for the first six months and to not distribute any breast milk substitute such as powdered milk. This is the theory. Then there is the reality. And the reality is that globally in 2009 only 38% of infants under the age of 6 months were exclusively breastfed. Countries are awash with powdered milk and people opt for these products to feed their children. This is linked to a series of misconceptions such as the belief that women under stress cannot breastfeed. To debunk these myths the global health community has mounted awareness campaigns to inform and convince that every mother should exclusively breastfeed for the initial 6 months. The results were mixed as the statistics above shows. Why?

These campaigns normally attempt to persuade the person to adopt the desired practice: they do so by showing what could happen if the child is not exclusively breastfed. However, as with any other preventive measures, the failure to comply (i.e. feed the child with powdered  milk) poses costs and damages (child diseases) which occur only with a time lag. For this reason the cost imposed by diseases cannot be easily traced back to it.

A new research from the Philippines points to another cost which occurs in the present and is more visible: the financial burden. Formula feeding imposes in fact a double cost: that associated with the purchase and the added cost to treat illness. When researchers added these costs incurred by families living on less than $2 per day they found that

formula-buying families with young children had spent an aggregate of 143.9 million on medical care compared  to $56.6 million by non-formula buying. After adjusting for income and non-milk family expenditures, the average formula-purchasing Philippine family spent an additional $0.30 on medical expenditure for every $1 spent on formula.

Although these results should be taken with a pinch of salt (data about medical expenditures does not distinguish which person within the family sought care hence the relation between medical expenditure and formula usage is limited) they point to an interesting direction: families who opt for infant feeding vis-a-vis breastfeeding incur a very visible financial cost. So next time one was to convince mothers to breastfeed the message breastfeeding- is -bad-for -your- baby-and-your-pocket could be one worth trying.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dana permalink
    May 16, 2012 8:36 pm

    Interesting piece! On a related note, hospitals shouldn’t give out free infant formula packages because they have been shown to discourage breastfeeding. Even though these samples are initially “free,” they end up costing more because mothers are likely to stick with the particular brand they receive in hospitals. These can cost up to $700 per year more than the cheaper alternative brands.

    And, more importantly, there is consensus among all major health care providers that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after a child is born is best for the health of both infants and mothers. When formula is necessary, women should be able to decide for themselves which brand to use, rather than being limited to the expensive and often harmful options available through hospital contracts.

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