The environmental impact of infant feeding

The theme of this year’s breastfeeding week is the impact of infant feeding on the environment and how this affects our planet and our health. It’s a great theme.  After all, we know that climate change is a real crisis that will affect most of us in our lifetime, and will certainly impact on our children.  We all know the importance of being environmentally-friendly.  But what does this have to do with how you feed your baby?

Breastfeeding is sustainable

Breastfeeding requires no input from industry.  Your body makes milk, you feed your baby from your body.  Nothing extra is needed in this process (apart from maybe extra chocolate and cake for you).  But… no bottles, no formula, no sterilizing equipment.  Breastfeeding is the ultimate sustainable food source, isn’t it?

Formula feeding isn't sustainable

Formula is made almost exclusively as a by-product of the diary industry.  I’m not going to get into an argument here about whether going vegan is more environmentally healthy, that’s not what the focus is here.  It’s merely to highlight that to make formula, cows milk is processed and altered, (usually) converted into powder, then packaged and shipped, often all around the world. That process involves a huge amount of resources, energy and water.  Then you need all the feeding equipment that goes with it too, which is almost always plastic.  Breastfeeding reduces the need for that huge use of resources.

Is this relevant to individual parents who want to breastfeed?

Honestly, I don’t think so… I don’t think parents are going to decide to breastfeed (or continue to do so) just because it’s environmentally friendly.  Just like it’s not enough to know what the benefits of breastfeeding are.  

Knowing that breastfeeding is environmentally friendly may be one of the reasons you are glad to be breastfeeding.  But actually motivate you to feed when you’re exhausted, with sore nipples, getting up to feed for the 7th time in the night?  No, I’m pretty sure you won’t be thinking of the environmental benefits.

So why have a week focusing on the environmental impact of infant feeding?

I think it’s important to highlight these issues at a much wider level than just the individual level. Good support is essential to breastfeeding success.  In fact, making sure that you have the right support is probably much likely to result in sustained breastfeeding rather than just wanting to breastfeed.  So the reason we have this focus, this year, is not to boost the individual breastfeeding rate purely because you’re convinced breastfeeding is environmentally friendly.  Rather, it’s about changing societal attitudes, policies and practices to support breastfeeding and make infant feeding more sustainable. 

But what if my baby does need formula?

I know focusing on the benefits of breastfeeding can be hard.  Especially when you really wanted to breastfeed, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. I’m not anti-formula. My first baby had formula and I recently went on a 5-shop hunt for formula for a friend (thanks covid-19 for making it really hard to find a stock of stage one formula).  If you feel like formula feeding is the right choice for you, then I support your decision.  As an IBCLC I will absolutely recommend supplementing breastfeeding when it is necessary, and will suggest formula if breastmilk isn’t available.  If your baby needs formula, there is no shame in that.

BUT… if you’re angry, hurt, sad that you really wanted to breastfeed and that didn’t work out, then I’m angry, hurt and sad for you.  And YOU are the reason we need weeks like World Breastfeeding Week.   Because, ultimately, it isn’t down to individuals parents to make infant feeding more environmentally friendly.  We need to change society to make breastfeeding the easy, sustainable choice, not the difficult, jump-through-hoops, succeed in spite of everything, choice. 

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