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Food Politics

The Kid’s Menu: How to Avoid Baby Formula

The world seems to start pushing formula on mothers at the moment of conception. But what if you just want your baby to drink breast milk?
foods to eat while pregnant

The more I think about baby formula, the harder it is for me to believe that some people voluntarily feed this stuff to their offspring. To be fair, I was a formula baby, and I don’t have any of the horrible health problems that the scare tacticians warn about, but think about it: Formula was concocted in a lab! What if starting out life eating scientist-designed food is the reason I can’t be alone with an open box of cheez crackers today?

But avoiding formula is really, really hard. It started way before my baby was born. In my fifth month of pregnancy, a package arrived in the mail: Inside were two cans of Similac. I don’t know how they found me, but that was only the beginning. My shopping bags from maternity stores often had formula samples wrapped right up with the clothes. A “new mother” gift from my obstetrician ostensibly contained stuff I’d need for the hospital: a tiny toothbrush, a dainty tube of toothpaste, a miniscule bar of soap, and a nice big can of formula.

Right after my emergency C-section, the nurses at the hospital started parading through my room with their clipboards and looks of concern. “Your milk will take longer to come in because of the surgery,” they said. “Perhaps the baby should get some formula.” I put them off, instead trying to nurse my giant baby as often as I could to stimulate milk production. “His blood sugar is falling, which happens with big babies,” they said. “We could give him a bottle at night and give you a chance to sleep.” A Similac pen dangled around the night-nurse’s neck. “Okay,” I said, “but just an ounce or so. Otherwise, if he’s hungry, bring him to me.” I woke up after 6 hours, sort of shocked that the baby hadn’t been brought in to feed yet, and rang for the nurse. She rolled his bassinet in. “What a good eater he is!” she said. “He drank the whole bottle!”

The clincher was when Franklin’s jaundice set in—apparently a common affliction in newborn babies, but the best way to get rid of it, I was told, is with lots of hydration. I gave in. I was instructed by a nurse to finish each nursing session with as much formula as the baby wanted. Of course, we sprang from the hospital three days later completely hooked. I couldn’t stand it—the formula, along with Franklin’s breath—smelled awful, like miso soup mixed with an instant breakfast drink. “How can he want to eat something that stinks so much?” asked my husband.

Theoretically, it would be simple to wean Franklin from formula. But his nursing sessions only seemed more perfunctory with each passing day, an hors d’oeuvre to nibble before the real meal, which he always guzzled with gusto. I hired a lactation consultant (yes, that’s a real job), and we came up with a plan to get him off the bottle.

A visit to the pediatrician only increased my hysteria, as even with his two-course meals, Franklin had put on a bare minimum of weight. “Don’t you have any milk?” the nurse asked me, holding her Enfamil-brand clipboard. My stomach flipped over. “Hmm,” said the lactation consultant calmly, when I called her with the news. “He’s playing with us. Cut off the formula completely.”

I became a permanent resident, as my husband would tell me, of Crazy Town. I called the lactation consultant every day during her office hours, breaking into cold sweats on Saturdays, the only day when, as an orthodox Jew, she didn’t take calls. I talked to friends who had successfully breastfed and obsessed over the details. “He only swallows once per five sucks!” I said to my friend Laura over lunch with our babies. “What’s Anna’s suck-to-swallow ratio??” “Uh, I’m not…sure…” she said, eyeing me like you might look at someone holding you hostage. I even phoned a friend’s sister whom I had never met, just because I had heard that she might have some breastfeeding wisdom to impart (thanks, Jennifer’s sister). I counted dirty diapers, and kept a little journal of Franklin’s output. (“Poo, pee, poop, ah-ha,” sang my sister merrily, to the tune of the Witch Doctor, as she read the notebook.) My mother asked, “When are you going to relax and start enjoying this baby?”

There it was. That was the subtext to those first weeks: If you just give in, it said, you can stop worrying and begin to enjoy your baby. The shiny cans at the drugstore mocked me. “Sensitive,” said one, “Reduces Fussiness and Gas.” Franklin was fussy at night—in my paranoia, I was sure it was from hunger—and I secretly wondered if formula would bring us both peace. But I couldn’t give in, out of sheer stubbornness: I had been cooking from scratch for way too many years to feed my baby meal-replacement shakes.

In the end, the lactation consultant was absolutely right: It was the breastmilk-formula tango that kept Franklin from really learning how to nurse, and as soon as we eliminated the formula, he took to the milk like a football player at the all-you-can-eat buffet. We went for a weigh-in at the pediatrician’s, and finally, Franklin tipped the scales, gaining more than the requisite number of ounces. I was about to leave the doctor’s office victoriously when I realized the baby needed a diaper change, and I asked the nurse for one of their disposable changing pads. “We have a reusable one that you can keep,” she said, handing me a rolled-up piece of vinyl. I opened it. In the lower corner was a pocket containing a box of Similac. I sighed and undid Franklin’s diaper. An arc of pee shot up, landing squarely on the formula. “Good job, Franklin,” I thought.