Monday, February 18, 2013

It's official: I love formula

About six months ago I wrote a very sad post about two twins, Michael and Joseph. Their mother, a lovely woman who worked for us part time, had passed away giving birth to these twins she didn't know she was carrying, another tragic casualty of poverty.

When I visited them, they were already 2 months old, but the size of newborns.  They were being cared for by their paternal grandmother who had taken in these boys she didn't even know existed until their mother passed away.  She had to quit her job selling fruit to stay home and try and keep them loved and alive.  She did it without complaining.

A newborn is a challenge for a mother with a husband, functioning mammary glands and a steady income.  Esther had none of these.  And two babies.  She did all she could to keep them nourished, even trying her hand at nursing them, but settled on giving these small babies cows milk and thinned out porridge.  When I visited them, several tins of formula in hand, they looked frail.
Joseph, looked well loved but weak

His brother Michael, also looking frail
After I wrote this post, a dear friend made a very generous offer to support Esther and the babies for one year with formula and a grant to start her mango selling business again.  Each month we saw to it that the formula was delivered to their village home about 2 1/2 hours away from Kisumu.

A few months ago, we heard that the babies had come down with bad cases of malaria.  None of us said it, but we were all terrified they wouldn't make it. Malaria is a common killer of children in this part of the world, children who are probably healthier than Michael and Joseph.  But, with Esther's care and attention, they pulled through.

Last week had been 6 months of formula.  We traveled to Webuye to visit the twins, and this is what I found:

Michael, looking gorgeous and healthy

Joseph looking confused, but also gorgeous and healthy. 

We'll never know if the formula saved these babies, but it just might have.

Formula costs about 800 Kenyan Shillings ($10) a tin.  To put that in perspective, a daily wage for a village laborer (for example, weeding a shamba or doing construction) is about 200 Ksh.  But wages are hard to come by at all, and most people subsistence farm.  Anyway, you can't find formula at all in the village but would have to travel to large store in a bigger city where it is often under lock and key. Without the help of my friend, formula would have simply been an impossibility.

I'm not sure the babies would have weathered such a serious sickness with only cows milk and thin porridge in their systems.  In fact, their deceased mother's relatives recently visited the twins and were shocked to find them still alive.

In the national conversation about breastfeeding and the shame women are made to feel when they are driven to or chose to supplement with or solely use formula, we forget: formula saves lives. This fact was an abstraction until recently.  While those of us in the wealthy world disdain formula, so many women in poorer parts of the world are dying to get their hands on that much maligned but life saving powder.  Michael and Joseph just might owe their lives to it.  

10 comments:

  1. Hi Kim - This is a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. While formula may be a godsend in rural Kenya, those of us in the wealthy world have other options other than mom's breast or canister. Here's a post I recently wrote about homemade formula - a wealthy world privilege I think more moms should take advantage of when they can't breastfeed.

    http://www.holisticsquid.com/the-best-formula-for-your-baby/

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    1. Fascinating post Emily! (and I just love your website!) I had NO idea that this was possible. It's nice to have another option amid the bf vs. formula debate!

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  2. Formula saved my premie daughter when I couldn't make enough milk despite medication and round the clock pumping. She went from failure to thrive to robust and continues to nurse a year later combined with formula. I wish we had been encouraged to supplement earlier when we were struggling so badly.

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    1. It's amazing how quickly babies will beef up with formula. We had another friend who pretty much saved a 7 month old on the verge of death with formula.

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  3. I was unable to breastfeed my oldest and I was so aware of my privilege every time I bought her formula. I'm so happy for these, very healthy looking, twins. They are gorgeous!

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    1. It is a privilege to have options when mother nature fails us! And, I know! Aren't they gorgeous?!?

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  4. "while those of us in the wealthy world distain formula..."
    well, I live in a boston suburb, so I'm pretty sure I'm in the "wealthy world" you refer to. But, I don't know what you are talking about. I LOVE formula. I nursed both my kids until they were 5 months old, but from 1 mo to 5 months, i didn't do every feeding on the breast. I did some with formula and some nursing. Kids who get some of their nutrition from formula (vs exclusively from breast milk) sleep longer (sleep through the night at an earlier age). That is healthy for everyone in the house. And of course after 5 months, my kids had some food-food, and drank formula until age 1. Yes, I live in the "wealthy world." Since I have the privledge of choice, why on earth would I want to live as a slave to my children's hunger whims by denying them anything other than breast milk? Why wouldn't I want to give their father and grandparents and aunts and uncles the pleasure (and responsibility) of feeding them every now and then? what could be distainful about that? I don't hate breastfeeding, but it isn't easy or fun. What I do hate is that breastfeeding is such a BIG deal and that there are some in the "wealthy world" who try to pressure moms into breast feeding and who try to deny moms access to formula.

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    1. I get the impression that you are in a minority here. To a person, everyone I know who has bottle fed has been made to feel guilty or embarrassed about it. The message du jour is "breast is best" and there are even efforts underway to keep formula under lock and key in hospitals to encourage women to keep trying to breast feed as long as possible. Nearly every single post I've ever read about breast feeding reiterates that women are made to feel ashamed about their failure to breast feed or reliance on formula. I'm glad this hasn't affected you, but I still strongly thing you are in the minority here!

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    2. well, yes. that is kind of my point. I hate that people are trying to make women feel guilty for not exclusively breast feeding their children until they are old enough to drive. (hyperbole). But the fact that there are breast-feeding nazis out there trying to guilt us (or force us) all into boob-slavery doesn't mean that we real-life moms ("those of US in the wealthy world") should all agree that "breast-only-is-best." I don't feel ashamed. but I do (often) feel like I'm the only one sticking up for moms who choose not to exclusively breast feed. Yes, I am in the minority. And I don't understand why. I don't understand why other well-educated women who were in high paying jobs before they had kids (and some still now that they have kids) are not saying "leave me the F*!$ alone and let me decide for myself whether/how much i will breast feed my kids." If you can explain that to me, I'll be very happy.

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  5. So good to see those babies thriving. Thank goodness for their grandmother's nurturance as well as that formula.

    I nursed my four babies for a total of 10 years, by choice. I do see a significant prejudice against formula and in some ways I think it's a positive sign that the weight of opinion has swung back to mother's milk.

    But that opinion can be deadly. A friend of mine, Sasha Crow, has been working to alleviate the suffering of refugees of the war in Iraq through a non-profit she started and runs almost single-handedly, Collateral Repair Project. Due to displacement and economic stress on mothers, they often cannot nurse. Sasha's efforts to buy formula for their infants were stymied at every turn even though these babies were barely making it on watered down canned milk or sugar water. NGO's refused funding requests because their guidelines affirmed that breastfeeding was the only optimal nutrition source for babies. Private donors who could normally be counted on refused to help that particular project because they too felt formula wasn't the right choice. Sometimes opinions harm.
    http://www.collateralrepairproject.org/
    http://www.facebook.com/CRProject/info

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