F.U., S.V.U.: NBC show links not breastfeeding to SIDS, inappropriately

I want to kick the writers of Law & Order Special Victims Unit (SVU) in the overpaid shins.

First, they get rid of my beloved Stabler. Then they confuse the partner dynamic by bringing on not one, but two new detectives. And then, they give us last night’s episode, an astonishingly offensive example of mommy-blame (and confusion of correlation and causation) in all it’s glory.

I stayed up late to watch the DVR’d new episode of my (formerly) favorite show, which last night centered on a couple whose baby “supposedly” went missing after their car was stolen on the mean Manhattan streets. It’s pretty obvious from the start that something is fishy; the mother of the missing infant is seen in a convenience store buying diapers for her baby, all the while looking anxiously out the window at where her car is parked (apparently with the baby still inside).

Cut to the scene where the SVU detectives are taking her statement. The mother mentions that her baby is on soy formula due to “lactose intolerance” (she tells the detectives this because the person who snatched her baby won’t know that he needs a special formula.) At this point I knew she had to be guilty, because what kind of mother wouldn’t be breastfeeding? Probably one that was also shown smoking like a chimney, and left her child unattended in a running car.

Ultimately, it turns out that the baby died accidentally, while co-sleeping with the loving, but inherently flawed, parents. In terms of the storyline, we are supposed to feel sorry for the couple, who thought that the death was their fault (thus causing them to come up with the elaborate ruse which cost the city tons of money and energy trying to find a “carjacked” 3-month-old); the detectives are quite adamant that the cause of death was SIDS, and therefore 100% blame-free.

Or was it? (Cue the dramatic music)

See, I’m a little confused here. Near the end of the episode, we see the medical examiner in the process of making the cause of death diagnosis. As the idea of SIDS floats into her mind, she stops, pauses for effect, and says to the detective – “Wait – we know this baby wasn’t breastfed… is the mother a smoker?” The detective answers affirmatively, and viola, the M.E. has her answer. SIDS, obviously. Because everyone knows not breastfeeding and smoking cause – err, I mean, are correlated with – SIDS.

The minute the “not breastfed” line was out of the actress’s mouth, I turned to Fearless Husband and groaned. “You’re f-ing kidding me,” I yelled at the television. What was the point of bringing either of those things up? First of all, smoking – actually, prenatal smoking has the most significant correlation, and I don’t recall them addressing whether the mom smoked while pregnant – is far more significant a risk factor than not breastfeeding (and for that matter, how the hell did she “know” that this baby “wasn’t breastfed”? Maybe the mom nursed for 2.5 months and had just switched to soy formula in the past week or so; the studies say that any breastfeeding has a protective effect against SIDS, so this is relevant) and even bringing that up irked me. If the point of the episode was that the death was no one’s fault, it seems awfully suggestive to me that they brought up these “risk factors” which were completely controllable; both things that if the mom had been a “better” mother, could have been avoided.

This episode was indeed ripped from the headlines, like most of Law & Orders are. Just this week, a big article on CNN.com mentioned how a reduction of SIDS risk is just one more reason we “should breastfeed”. (It also talked about the risk factors of bumpers, and not vaccinating. Actually, it’s worth a read, because the way they talk about bumpers feels like a spoof on formula… they are actually asking retailers to stop selling bumpers because it can be “confusing” to see bumpers laid out so prettily in stores, as they are instruments of death, and all…)

The episode also hinted that co-sleeping was a risk factor (since the baby was sleeping in the same bed as the parents when he died), but in such a vague way that it barely registered. Plus, we all know that co-sleeping is only dangerous if you are formula feeding, so why bother to even discuss that association?

The sad truth is that we DO NOT REALLY KNOW what causes SIDS. Breastfeeding may indeed have a protective effect, but that doesn’t mean that not breastfeeding is so significant a risk factor that it would be the first thought in a medical examiner’s mind. (Unless she shares my infuriating Twitter feed.) There are things that are associated with SIDS deaths – sleep position, bumpers, too much stuff in the crib, not breastfeeding, maternal prenatal smoking, low socioeconomic status (that’s one that nobody brings up – what kind of uproar would there have been if that M.E.’s line had been “Wait – we know this baby had poor, uneducated, working class parents!! It must be SIDS!”), and apparently “not vaccinating”, according to CNN (which is weird, because why the hell would vaccinations protect against SIDS unless the death was caused from that particular diseases being vaccinated against? That recommendation puts my conspiracy theory cockles up, and makes me think that the AAP is using some vague research to cajole parents into vaccinating. Which doesn’t make me think too highly of the other recommendations. It’s also odd because if you look at the groups where not vaccinating is common practice, they tend to fulfill other “healthy” criteria – well educated, upper middle-class, non-smoking, organic-eating, breastfeeding-friendly types; since vaccines are free through public health programs, presumably the only other folks not vaccinating their kids are “negligent” parents who do not attend well-baby visits where these innoculations are given. Two markedly different groups. So I really have to wonder what controls were used in the research on this SIDS/not vaccinating correlation…. if they did control for socioeconomic status, how many non-vaxing parents do not breastfeed? I’m sure there are some, but if the blogosphere is any indication, this would be a rarity. Color me confused… is breastfeeding protective, but not protective if you don’t vaccinate??)

Anyway, back to SVU. Considering bringing up the risk factors of smoking and formula feeding threw blame on the mother, I have to believe that the writers had some sort of agenda here. It didn’t make sense plot-wise to insinuate that it was the mom’s fault. For the purposes of the story, we need to feel like the death was NOT anyone’s fault, otherwise we don’t feel any pity for the parents, which makes us question why the detectives wouldn’t at least prosecute them for putting the city through hell (which is brought up, but then a detective implores that the parents are “being punished enough already”). It seems that the writers wanted to send a message, that SIDS is preventable, if you are unselfish enough to breastfeed.

Now, if that were true, it’s one thing. But to throw that kind of meme into the court of public opinion? Guilty as charged, SVU. You guys suck. And seriously, bring back Stabler.

About the Author:

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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