Every now and then I'll run across a post on my Facebook page from a breastfeeding friend with the classic question, "I have some formula samples. What should I do with them? Anyone want them?" A similar post periodically comes up on breastfeeding advice forums, "I have formula samples. Should I trash them? What should I do with them?"
No, it's not wrong to want to throw out those formula samples. After all, if you're struggling with some aspect of breastfeeding, then it's rather infuriating that someone is shipping a box of formula to your door. It's like they're trying to talk you out of breastfeeding your baby: something that you want to do and are working hard to do. For many mothers they need to eliminate the temptation; they need to get the formula out of the house so that they don't feel the need to use it. And even if you make it through the early days with the formula samples still around, at some point it'll become clear that you just plain don't need it and will want to get it out of your house to clear the clutter.
So, yes, I understand why you may want to throw your free formula in the trash, but DON'T THROW FORMULA AWAY!
Why not? Why not stick it to those formula company fat cats trying to tempt you with their pricey product? I have a few reasons. Formula is real food, not poison. It is entirely reasonable and, in fact, recommended to use formula in cases where human milk is unavailable. If you struggle with low supply then you may need to feed your baby some formula. There is no shame in this. And it's ok to keep formula samples in your pantry just in case you may need them in the future.
But what if you don't want to keep the formula around?
Donate it! Always donate your formula samples. Yes, you could offer to give them to a formula feeding friend, family member, neighbor, or Facebook acquaintance. That's not a terrible solution. But before you start offering it around to people you know, seriously consider donating it. Why? Because some babies really need infant formula. Yes, you read that right. Formula is necessary in some cases, and donated formula can save lives.
Breastmilk is the recommended food for all babies (except in a few rare cases). If adequate breastmilk is unavailable, infant formula is the recommended breastmilk substitute food. For a variety of complicated reasons (some of which we as a medical community as still working to understand), low income mothers are at high risk of not breastfeeding. When a woman stops breastfeeding, her supply significantly decreases, eventually dropping to a point where she can no longer breastfeed without going through the process of re-lactation. In other words, while switching from exclusive breastfeeding to exclusive formula feeding can be done as a snap decision, making the switch in the other direction is not easy and sometimes impossible.
So why should we care? Put yourself in the shoes of the low income formula feeding mother. You're struggling to raise a family with limited resources available to you. You may or may not be aware that breast is best, but that hardly matters to you at the moment since your milk supply disappeared weeks ago. You need to feed your baby, and formula is the only option that you have left. This means filling bottles with formula all day every day. You're buying can after can of the stuff, and it's not cheap. You buy the cheapest formula in the store, but even that is pricey. You sign up for WIC because you need free formula right now. Except that WIC is a supplemental nutrition program, meaning that the free formula from WIC won't be enough. So what are you going to do? You have a couple options. One is to water down the formula to make it last longer. Which you do because you have to. Except you're embarrassed to tell anyone that you do this, and no one has the opportunity to tell you that watering down formula can cause hyponatremia in your baby. And hyponatremia can cause seizures and, in extreme cases, death.
What other options does the low income mother have? Food banks. Church pantries. And whatever other charitable organizations provide food donations to the needy in your community. So donate your formula to her. Because she needs it. Would breastfeeding be better? Sure. One day we'll make breastfeeding feel more accessible to women like her. But in the meantime she's got to feed her baby and she needs help.