Formula feeding support goes viral

I hate self-promotion. It makes me feel cheap and easy. (Although considering all it takes to seduce me is a frozen yogurt and some Tricky on the stereo, I guess that isn’t an inaccurate description…) So, I hesitate to post that FFF Amber has featured me on her fabulous blog, The Life & Times of Stella, lest I come off as tooting my own horn. But here I go, toot toot toot….

See the interview here.

Not that anyone will believe me, but I’m posting this more so that you will go to Amber’s blog and read all her other entries… the ones about her struggle to feed her daughter, and how both mama and child have come through quite an ordeal to thrive in an enviable way. Amber is the true definition of a fearless formula feeder, and I am so proud to be part of her new interview series on “confident moms”.

Can parents save science?

I was procrastinating from making dinner this evening, reading through one of my favorite blogs, Momma Data, when I came across a post I somehow missed back when it was published. The author, Polly Palumbo, asks: Can science rescue parents?

Momma Data is one of those sites that amaze me on a daily basis. You’d be hard pressed to find a more well-written, intelligent and humorous take on the science of parenting. And the best thing is, far as I can tell, Palumbo does it out of her own frustration over the media’s love affair with bad science. She’s not trying to make headlines; she’s not sponsored by anyone… she’s just a wicked smart mom with the educational background and perspective to break it all down for us in a way we can all understand.

Anyway- enough raving. Back to the post in question. Palumbo brings up an incredibly important point:

Even when we do have good scientific evidence refuting popular ideas we still have people clinging to the debunked claims.  Instead of discovering real solutions we’re stuck spending vast sums of money and time on further debunking the by now nullified nonsense….What to do about this fine mess?…How about more knowledgable scientists and journalists publicly recognizing and speaking out against poor science or pseudo science.  Taking the time to explain how the often biased research is flawed or limited and doing so without boring everyone.  On the flip side, we need to be more vocal about the better scientific nevidence, communicating more about the nuances, things we know for sure and things we don’t know.  That holds true for all research, good and bad, discussing the nuances.

This sentiment is worth repeating, because all of us – lactivists, FFFs, and everybody else- need to try and think critically these days. In that spirit, I want to remind everyone (especially myself) of a few things:

1.Headlines are meant to sell newspapers. And considering the state of the print media industry, it makes sense that they are getting more and more sensational, even from hard news outlets. I don’t know for sure but I’d bet the Enquirer has a far larger print readership than the New York Times. Give the reporters and their editors a little slack, but take the headlines with a whole pile of salt. Often, what is said in the article isn’t really that sensational, but the headline is what gets Tweeted or blogged about. Yeah, it would be nice if there was some sort of media code of ethics, but it would also be nice if my son slept through the night. Too bad you can’t Ferberize the New York Times.

2. Scientists are human. If you prick them, do they not bleed? Yeah. They do. And they also need health insurance and money so that when they go to the hospital for that wound you inflicted, they can be treated. This means that they need to get studies published, books written, tenure kept, etc. Often, the studies themselves aren’t the problem; it’s what the researcher says afterwards in interviews, making claims that aren’t  really supported by the research. I think they should add a talking-to-the-media class into PhD and MD programs. But until that happens, give them a little slack too… reporters can be intimidating.

3. We need to take responsibility as parents, too. I know, I know… we can’t even find the time to clean the avocado off the high chair (not that I’m talking from personal experience or anything), let alone learn how to read studies correctly or understand the intricacies of research. But we can make it a point to not take everything Oprah or the evening news or even the AAP says as gospel, because chances are they will say the polar opposite a few years from now. And maybe if we all take a deep breath and not panic at every new “scientific fact” that tells us what we are doing as parents is irrevocably screwing up our kids…well, then maybe even if science can’t rescue parents, maybe parents can rescue science.

Breastmilk, formula, and intelligence: our kids still have a shot at Harvard!

….Or Yale. Don’t want to spark a battle over alma maters, here.

The newest study on breastfeeding and intelligence comes out of the University of Southampton, where researchers suggested that “breastfed babies are smarter because their mothers are clever, not because of the nutritional benefits of breast milk.”

This isn’t really that newsworthy, considering another British study made the same claim in 2006. But I immediately cringed at the vague, misleading text of the study’s press release:

…The researchers followed 241 children from birth until four years old to investigate the relationship between breastfeeding and the use of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) fortified formula in infancy, and performance in tests of intelligence…The researchers found that after they had taken account of the influence of mothers’ intelligence and level of education there was no relationship between the estimated total intake of DHA in infancy and a child’s IQ…

I was not at all surprised when folks started Tweeting about their confusion and anger over this study. It seemed like a huge leap to take a study about DHA and use it to suggest that previous beliefs over the IQ-boosting benefits of breastfeeding were null and void – even to me. Really.

But then I started thinking… perhaps these U of Southampton researchers were just responding to previous research, without us laypeople knowing the whole backstory. Kind of like the Spears-Timberlake dance-offs of yore. Some scientist made one phat move (do the kids still say “phat”? God, I am so old), so the Southampton posse had to bust out an even cooler interpretation of the same move… In other words: was DHA the issue all along? If so, then proving that the DHA in breastmilk does not make us smarter would actually be – dare I say it – a pretty significant find.

I turned to Dr. Sears for an explanation on just how the breastfeeding camp believes that mother’s milk can raise intelligence, and found this. He does outline several theories (not sure exactly what research he’s using to back these up, but hey, he’s Dr. Sears, so it probably doesn’t matter), but first and foremost is – you guessed it – the presence of DHA in breastmilk:


Although intellectual differences between breastfed and formula-fed children used to be attributed to the increased holding and interaction associated with breastfeeding and to the fact that mothers who breastfed were better educated and/or more child-centered, new evidence shows that there are nutrients in breastmilk that enhance brain growth…One key ingredient in breastmilk is a brain-boosting fat called DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is a vital nutrient for growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissue. Autopsy analysis of brain tissue from breastfed and formula-fed infants shows that the brains of breastfed babies have a higher concentration of DHA, and DHA levels are highest in babies who are breastfed the longest. Infant formulas made in the United States do not contain DHA.

(Okay… just taking a moment here to suggest that the good doctor think about updating his website. Infant formulas made in the United States most certainly DO contain DHA. I know this for a fact, because when we were struggling to find a formula our baby could tolerate, we found something online that suggested some kids might be sensitive to the algae source of DHA favored by infant formula manufactures. We had to search and search to find a formula that DIDN’T have the DHA/ARA blend (for the record, Nestle’s Good Start makes a version without it). I’m not sure at what point these became industry standard, but it has been at least more than a year, since my kid is now 14 months; I’ve worked for several websites, none of them with half the money or notoriety of AskDrSears.com, and this kind of inaccurate information would never have been allowed. We updated at least once every fiscal quarter. So get with the program, Bill.)

Knowing that DHA was supposedly the magic ingredient in past examinations of breastmilk and intelligence, the (admittedly confusing) statements of the Southampton research team make a bit more sense. I then found an article from the UK’s Times Online which goes into more detail about this study:

Previous trials have shown that infants fed on formula milk tend to have lower intelligence and the IQ difference has frequently been put down to a deficit of an omega 3 fatty acid, known as DHA, that is normally found in lower concentrations in formula milk….However, scientists at the Univerisity of Southampton, found no evidence of a link between intelligence and breastfeeding once the mother’s social class and IQ were taken into account. 

The researchers analysed data from 241 children and their mothers in the UK, dividing the babies into three groups — breastfed, those fed with formulas fortified with MHA and those fed unfortified formulas.


The breastfed babies performed significantly better than those given unfortified milk. But once the impact of social class and inherited IQ were taken in to account, breastfeeding appeared to have no affect on intelligence. 

Since the babies given fortified milk were fed with a number of brands, with a range of concentrations of MHA, the researchers also looked for a direct correlation between total MHA intake and IQ at the age of four, but again found no link.

“Factors in the home, such as the mother’s intelligence and what mental stimulation children receive, were the most important influences on their IQ,” said Dr Gale.

Anyway. I hope that clarifies some of the confusion over this newest breastfeeding headline;  I’m logging off to get some sleep now. Because studies show that getting a good night’s rest boosts intellectual performance. And I can use all the help I can get – my stupid Blogger account doesn’t have the spell check option, and I am sick to death of finding typos in my late-night rants.

Babble’s “Breastfeeding Conspiracy”

A few FFFs alerted me to an article posted today on Babble.com, about “lactation failure”. The author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, had personal experience with insufficient milk:

It turns out I had what is denigratingly called “lactation failure” — a condition shared by 15% of nursing mothers. But what I didn’t know, and what many women don’t know — is that it’s not our fault.
There are two types of lactation failure: primary and secondary. Secondary failure, which affects 11% of women, means that they were able to produce enough milk at one point, but then their production dwindles, typically due to insufficient nutrition, poor milk supply management or problems with the child’s sucking.
But 4% have what is known as “primary lactation failure,” which means that no matter what you do, you just can’t make enough milk. Common reasons for this are glandular tissue problems, breast-shape, prior breast surgery or Sheehan’s syndrome, in which women who have a massive postpartum hemorrhage experience shock to the pituitary gland. (The pituitary regulates prolactin, the hormone that supplies breast milk.) Less common causes of primary lactation failure include high or low blood pressure, anemia and certain medications. 

I’ve been thinking about this subject for awhile now, because I so often hear this “only 5% of women REALLY cannot nurse” mantra, and it irks me. Now, I understand that statistics can come across differently when viewed from the trenches. For example, I certainly believe that at least 1 in 4 women will experience a miscarriage; but at the time I suffered both of mine, not one of my childbearing friends (we’re talking about 10 people here) could empathize, only sympathize. They’d all sailed through their pregnancies unscathed. Since then, I have met so many women who share the specific grief of losing a potential child, but when I was in that particular trench, I was the only one out of ten – a lot lonelier than 1 in 4. Obviously, this isn’t how statistics like this work… but my point is, the real world is never as cut and dry as numbers make it out to be.

This little analogy wasn’t a complete digression: being the only one of my friends on the losing end of that miscarriage statistic led me to a fantastic message board, where I found at least a hundred new “friends” who could relate to my pain on a visceral level. We followed each other through pregnancies, both successful and not… and now we are all mothers; a hard-won title for many of us. But here’s the thing – I know at least 20 women on this board who have had medical conditions that made nursing either impossible. (I also know a good 20 who have problems which have made it so difficult that they’ve needed to spend considerable amounts of money, energy and time trying to feed their babies “liquid gold”. And for the record, I absolutely applaud them on these efforts – my point is only that they have had conditions which required medical or herbal supplementation, major dietary changes, exclusive pumping, etc.- conditions which women in other circumstances might not be able to overcome, and could understandably cite as an inability to nurse. And while they may have been able to breastfeed with medical help or a pump, I still think that is worth at least acknowledging, and giving them “permission” to stop when they have run themselves ragged trying to achieve something that does not come “naturally” to them at all.)

So, when I hear that “only 5% of women truly cannot breastfeed,” I really have to wonder. 20 in 100 is actually 20%, last I checked (my math is awful). I guess one could argue that since we all had fertility/miscarriage issues, there could be some confounding factor in there… (see my post about A New Take on the Benefits of Breastfeeding for some discussion on why prenatal factors may influence nursing success.) But I feel like I meet women all the time, in real life and on this blog, who tell stories so similar to Brodesser-Akner’s (and mine, for that matter – I had no shortage of milk, but that milk had trouble getting into my kid’s belly, for all sorts of reasons). Are we really only 5% of women? And even if we are… isn’t that 5% important enough to get respect and acceptance from other women, rather than judgment?

Anyway…the Babble article is a great read. I applaud Brodesser-Akner for having the courage to put herself out there, and I hope she doesn’t get discouraged by the backlash that is sure to come.

Sending formula to Haiti – update

Apparently, a few other people were just as confused about the whole send formula/don’t send formula debate. Salon.com had an interesting piece that basically came to the same conclusion I did, but the real story lies in the comments following the article. If you check it out, read all four pages of comments. I think nearly everybody makes good points, on both sides. But as an aside, I also found it refreshing to hear people not in the heat of their own parenting experiences, neither lactivist nor FFF, giving a bit of perspective on the issue.

Regardless – it’s an interesting reading…

Read the comments here.

I also want to put in my two cents about the call for lactating women to donate breastmilk to Haiti. Guys, this isn’t the answer, either. Let’s be logical about this – how is drinking ANYTHING from a bottle going to help sustain breastfeeding? Not to mention the logistics in transporting and distributing donated milk… breastmilk does not hold up well even in the best of circumstances. Formula, especially the ready-to-feed kind, which requires no added water, does. The problems caused by unsterilized bottles will not cease to be problems just because what is clinging microscopically to said bottle originated from the breast of well-fed lactating human in California rather than a can. I am all for helping nursing women in Haiti continue to nurse, but sending donated milk is not going to aid this cause any more than sending formula

All my thoughts are with the mothers, children, and everyone in Haiti right now. What an absolute nightmare. As I said on Facebook recently, Mother Nature is one mom who can be a major bitch.

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