Morgan Verdery had never had problems nursing her children, but when she adopted a newborn when her third child was just 8 months old, breastfeeding for two proved challenging.
The Hollywood, South Carolina woman tried increasing her milk supply with pumping, drinking Mother’s Milk tea, taking supplements and medication and even eating up to 5,000 calories a day, but nothing helped. Desperate to make it work, she had her prolactin hormone level tested and discovered it was low.
“I wasn’t producing enough milk and the babies weren’t growing at the rate I was comfortable with,” she recalled.
So after three months of attempting to nurse, she threw in the towel.
Verdery, 27, wasn’t keen on feeding her babies something that was processed, contained preservatives, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and milk from cows that are given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Although she considered organic baby formula, she knew it would be too expensive for two babies
After doing her own research on babies’ nutritional needs and asking a friend who had used homemade baby formula, Verdery decided to create her own recipe. The concoction included goat milk powder, organic coconut oil, organic olive oil, organic agave nectar, molasses, cod liver oil, infant probiotics, infant vitamins and water.
Once her family physician was satisfied with the amount of weight her babies were gaining, he gave her the green light to continue.
“We want to make sure that we’re putting the absolute best into our babies from the time they’re born. And if breastfeeding is not an option for whatever reason, for us, this was definitely the best route we could have taken,” she said of her decision in 2014.
Verdery is one of a growing cohort of mothers turning to homemade baby formula, whether by choice or necessity— they have low milk supplies or their baby isn’t gaining enough weight on breast milk alone— choosing to forgo commercial, store-bought brands.
Homemade, but not safe
Experts say that as moms continue to choose natural and organic food, diapers and toys, and eco-friendly cleaning products, the number of those also whipping up their own homemade baby formula alongside pea purees is on the rise.
Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and author of “The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care,” estimates between 10,000 and 20,000 babies have been fed the three types of homemade baby formula she and Dr. Mary Enig developed together 20 years ago.
“Mother’s milk is extremely rich in cholesterol and has special enzymes to ensure that the baby absorbs 100 percent of that cholesterol,” Fallon Morell said, adding that babies can’t make cholesterol but it’s critical for their neurological development. “One of the key problems with conventional formula is that it has low or no cholesterol because they use powdered nonfat milk.”
Fallon Morell cited other reasons why commercial formula falls short, such as using sugar and high-fructose corn syrup instead of lactose, and soybean, sunflower and safflower oils instead of butterfat.
Since many commercial formulas use powdered whey, babies eat de-natured proteins which force their digestion systems to work hard to overcome, she added.
“The ingredients are wrong, inappropriate and they put a great stress on the baby’s immune system and the baby’s digestion system,” Fallon Morell said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that when mother’s own milk isn’t an option, the next best is donor milk from a human milk bank, and then formula.
Commercial formula has been perfected to contain the right mix of protein, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, water and salt that a baby needs.
Plus, just as the composition of a mother’s breast milk changes as her baby gets older, infant formulas are also customized by age, said Dr. Kathleen M. Berchelmann, a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine.
Dr. Meg Meeker, a board-certified pediatrician in Traverse City, Mich. and spokesperson for the Infant Nutrition Council of America said that moms who want to make their own formula are well-intentioned and want to do what’s best for their babies but “the problem is that they’re being led into territory that’s really unsafe.”
For starters, if too much water is used in a homemade baby formula and the sodium is diluted, a baby’s blood sodium level can be low, which can lead to dehydration, seizures and even death.
Goat milk is also problematic because it’s low in B12 and folic acid, and without enough, a baby can develop severe anemia. Babies who are fed goat’s milk powder, which is not regulated by the FDA, can have a potentially fatal allergic reaction to the proteins, Meeker said.
Raw milk contains oligosaccharides, which feed the probiotics in a baby’s gut, and white blood cells that create the immune system, Fallon Morell said.
Experts argue that raw, unpasteurized milk— which is illegal in some states— is downright dangerous.
“The pasteurization process where [moms] think that’s doing something unhealthy and unnatural to milk in fact, is a great process that kills bacteria that are very harmful to people and babies,” Meeker said. “It’s even more serious with kids under a year of age than it is in older kids because [they have] an immature gut.”
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement warning pregnant women, infants and children not to consume raw dairy products.
Some moms also use non-dairy milks like rice milk, soy milk, almond milk and hemp milk in their homemade version, despite warnings on the label that they should not be used as infant formula.
“It’s very dangerous because these products, although they include the term ‘milk,’ do not contain the nutrition a newborn needs and they can become very ill as a result, Berchelmann said.
Despite the warnings, Verdery continues to defend homemade formula.
“I was much more comfortable knowing exactly what was going into my babies,” she said.
For experts, DIY is downright dangerous.
“Nutrition in babies under a year of age is a very complex science and art and that’s why breast milk and formula are the only safe things to give your baby,” Meeker said. “We want to make sure that we’re putting the absolute best into our babies."