I just listened to a podcast of a fascinating interview about breastmilk, courtesy of Skeptically Speaking. Interviewer Desiree Schell spoke with Dr. Katie Hinde, an Assistant Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology and the Director of the Comparative Lactation Laboratory at Harvard University. The newest of my internet crushes, Hinde offers a unique perspective on the science behind breastmilk with a level of sensitivity and realism that is unparalleled, as far as I’m concerned.
Take a listen for yourself – it’s well worth the 15 minutes. But in case you just want the Cliff’s Notes, here are the FFF-related highlights:
- Hinde points out that while there is a good deal of lactation research going on in the world, much of it is agenda-driven. The science is mainly coming from three areas: breast cancer research (which tends to focus on rats, who have similar mammary development to humans), the dairy industry (fixated on how to maximize milk production in cows) and from the infant feeding world (looking at tiny humans and their mothers). Within the last category, Hinde notes that both sides have clear agendas – one is trying to increase formula sales, and the other has “anti-formula aspects, that no matter what, breast is best.” “Both ends of these spectrums are limiting,” she says. (To which I say, word. WORD.)
- Research has shown that milk varies dramatically between women. Some mothers make high fat, low sugar milk; some have more cortisol (a beneficial hormone) in their milk; and so forth. Hinde explains that our milk is affected by what we’ve eaten and been exposed to for years prior to pregnancy and actual lactation, and that these lifestyle factors may create these differences in milk. Even the lactation process can vary across populations – Hinde notes that in America, studies have shown that many women do not have “copious milk production” until 72 hours postpartum, whereas in the less-developed world, the average time is much shorter. Considering doctors often step in at that 72-hour mark and recommend formula supplementation due to fears of dehydration or neonatal weight loss, it would be highly beneficial to find out why this delay occurs. Hinde questions why there hasn’t been more research on these differences in lactation process and milk constituents among women.
- While Hinde speaks about the power of breastmilk (and gives a really interesting explanation of just why breastmilk is so miraculous, absent of the usual hyperbole and backed by actual science), she also acknowledges that the decision to breastfeed is not made in a vacuum. And in what is probably one of the bravest statements I’ve ever heard made in a public forum about these issues, she argues that by finding out more about breastmilk, we can then create a better formula. “This is an important goal,” she states, because if women are unable to lactate, or have contraindications like HIV, “we need to make sure that the intervention (formula) is as representative as it can be for what (babies would be) getting from their mothers.” Now, obviously Hinde would argue that breastmilk is a superior nutritional choice, but the fact that she acknowledges the reality that some women are going to need formula, and that we owe these women and their children a better product…. well, let’s just say it made me tear up.
- On the topic of breastfeeding support, Hinde muses that there is this idea that because lactation has evolved over millions of years, it should be effortless and natural. But “so is sex”, she says, and a lot of us aren’t so great at that to begin with, either. She suggests that by openly discussing the physiological problems so many mothers face when attempting to breastfeed, we could actually increase the amount of women successfully meeting their breastfeeding goals, because we would feel less overwhelmed and lost when these issues arise. (I like to think all of your FFF Friday stories are doing this, in some small way; that they not only make formula feeding moms feel more empowered, but also help women dealing with breastfeeding challenges find answers, solace, and community, as well.)
Dr. Hinde is exactly what is needed in the world of lactation science – a true scientist, able to approach her research with nuance and a wider perspective. Check out her blog, Mammals Suck…Milk and take a listen to the Skeptically Speaking podcast (Schell, the interviewer, is also pretty darn rad, and manages to guide a potentially science-y interview into a very accessible and entertaining listening experience) to gain a far more thorough understanding of mother’s milk that makes you think instead of wanting to hurl your computer at the wall.
Speaking of thinking, this interview made me ponder about the types of studies that would be truly helpful for infant feeding research. How about a large study examining differences in children of non-breastfeeding mothers, randomly and blindly assigned only expressed donor breastmilk from bottles or a DHA/ARA containing, partially hydrolyzed formula (since this type seems to be the one that fares best in the studies which have been done), essentially ruling out all confounding factors? Or, what if we did intensive interviews and examinations with women who suffer from insufficient milk or delayed milk production, compared to controls that have no problems? Looked into their social, emotional and physical histories, and tried to find a common thread. I’d also love to see studies of breastmilk composition from women on severe elimination diets compared to those with healthy diets. And the list goes on…
So, let’s play scientist. What types of studies would you like to see in the field of lactation science? What do you think would actually help women to breastfeed, or to make formula a better substance?