News Bites: Lack of support for breastfeeding moms; Organic formula hyperbole

My blood pressure is rising, and I’m mid-tirade directed at my poor, innocent husband when it hits me: It must be time for a good, old fashioned, FFF news roundup.

Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile probably remember that I used to do these frequently, especially when something in the news cycle gives me a bout of psychologically-induced hives. So it may come as no surprise that I felt the urge this morning, when not one, but two frustrating pieces popped up in my news feed.

First up, we have coverage of a new study in the aptly titled “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report”, claiming that women are still not getting sufficient support in American hospitals for breastfeeding.

According to NPR:

Most hospitals around the country aren’t doing a good job of helping new moms who want to breast-feed, researchers report Tuesday..Several common practices at the institutions may actually prevent moms from sticking with breast-feeding for six months — the duration thought to be most healthful for babies.

 

Epidemiologists at the CDC surveyed more than 80 percent of the birthing centers across the country about the support they give new moms trying to breast-feed. About half of those surveyed said they implement five of the 10 practices recommended by the World Health Organization. By comparison, only a third of hospitals were hitting that mark in 2007.

Looking at the study itself, the news is far from dire. In fact, according to the CDC report of the evidence, “nationally, hospitals implementing more than half of the Ten Steps increased from 28.7% in 2007 to 53.9% in 2013.” That’s a pretty significant jump, but the media decided to go with the story that “hospitals aren’t doing enough to support women in meeting breastfeeding goals.”

This is me, reading these articles. Not really. But it SO could have been.

This is me, reading these articles. Not really. But it SO could have been.

But what is the real story, here, and how come no one is talking about it? What this study tells us is whether hospitals are following what they are ‘supposed’ to do to help improve breastfeeding rates. These are things like providing mandatory breastfeeding classes, holding breastfeeding support groups (or referring out to La Leche League, etc.), making sure no pacifiers are given to neonates, and outlawing the use of “unnecessary” formula supplementation – something which the NPR piece gives ample air time:

And, too often, that’s not happening. For example, about 75 percent of hospitals still give healthy babies some formula in the first days of life, even when moms say they want to breast-feed.

 

“Even a little bit of formula may undermine a strong start to breastfeeding,” Frieden says.

Again, let’s go back to the actual study. All it tells us is that “less progress occurred in limiting non–breast milk feeding of breastfed infants (20.6% to 26.4%)”. “Breastfed infants” means infants who start out breastfeeding, presumably. But many, many parents end up supplementing by choice or by necessity – and the study does not differentiate between these situations and the type of scenario the media is imagining, where innocent breastfed babies are stolen from their parents in the night and force-fed Enfamil.

This study is not news. This study is not, in fact, telling us anything about whether women are getting “support”, at all. It is telling us whether the number of hospitals following government guidelines for raising breastfeeding rates is going up (it is). It does not correlate that number with any increase in actual breastfeeding rates. It does not survey women and ask if they felt supported in achieving their breastfeeding goals. And it certainly does not factor in the needs or experiences of women who do not want to breastfeed, or physically can’t.

But it’s not the study I’m worried about – it’s the media’s insistence on sticking to one stale, tunnel-visioned narrative, insisting that what women need is support, but defining “support” as more control over their decisions and bodies; deciding that “supporting breastfeeding” means what one group decided it means, rather than listening to women, and asking them what would really help them achieve their goals. We end up exactly in the same place we were before: with hospitals implementing pro-breastfeeding policies and then wondering why their patients and nurses are making them so difficult to carry out. (Maybe because they aren’t the right policies, or they aren’t being implemented in the right way.)

Moving on… to a piece that could have been a nice little gift to formula consumers, something that actually made a case for better transparency in the formula industry, in the popular New York Times “Motherlode” column. If you’re not familiar with Motherlode, it usually features well-written personal essays on parenting, with the occasional news, book review, or opinion piece. Today’s column, “What Does ‘Organic’ Mean For Baby Formula”, was none of these, but rather a bizarre bit of “investigative reporting” that would have fit better over on Food Babe’s blog. The author of the piece writes:

…I began to question what, exactly, were the unexpected and confusing things I was reading on the ingredients lists.

The biggest surprise was that in many of the formulas, the main ingredient was not milk, but highly processed, refined sweeteners (often listed as organic glucose syrup solids). I generally avoid feeding refined sweeteners — even organic ones — to my children. I was even more taken aback to see how many also included ingredients one wouldn’t typically expect to find in organic food — like synthetic preservatives.

I won’t bore you with all the specifics of why formulas contain sweeteners, synthetic preservatives, and “confusing” ingredients, except to say this: companies have done their R&D to make the healthiest product possible for the lowest possible price. There may indeed be less processed or more premium ingredients available, but we don’t have any research proving that more expensive or organic formulas are any better for a child’s health, so there doesn’t seem to be justification for using materials that would raise the cost. (Note: If you do want more info on formula ingredients, visit Dr. Chad Hayes’ fantastic website).

Now, to be fair, I understand the author’s confusion; if you’re used to buying high-end organic food, the back of a formula can – organic or not – is going to be super intimidating. But it’s important to remember that the definition of organic food is simply about the sources of the ingredients:

“What is organic food? Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.  Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.  Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.  Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.  Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”

-Consumer Brochure, USDA National Organic Program, http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Consumers/brochure.html

To clarify, in organic foods, the ingredients used can’t be derived from sources using GMO, pesticides, antibiotics, and so forth. It doesn’t mean that the food is healthy or whole. You could make an organic version of a Twinkie, but it would still be a Twinkie.

Now, in the case of formula, we are talking about something healthy – but also highly processed. This is chemical food, and it should be chemical food. It is a substitute for human milk; hence, the only way it can come close to human milk is by being recreated in a lab. Every mammal creates milk specific to its species; having the primary ingredient of human infant formula be cow’s milk has to do with cow’s milk being cheap and readily available, and easy enough to alter to be suitable for human consumption; it’s not because cow’s milk is particularly good for humans, whether it comes from the udders of grass-fed cows or not. 

I honestly do not want to criticize the author of the NYT piece. She sounds like a very well-intentioned mother. But I do think that an article which seems on the surface to be investigative journalism instead of an opinion piece, could be misleading to other well-intentioned parents, who will now feel that they have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to feed their children “healthy” formula: 

On a friend’s advice, I began to research two formulas made in the European Union, HiPP and Holle. It seemed pretty clear: these formulas came closer to what I would expect in organic baby food. No refined, high-concentrated sweeteners. No synthetic DHA or ARA. No synthetic preservatives. HiPP says it analyzes all its agricultural projects for traces of over 1,000 different substances. The main ingredient in Holle’s formula is milk that comes from pasture-fed cows raised on biodynamic farms.

 

Holle and HiPP are great products. And the author’s assertion at the end of her article, that parents need better options, is spot-on. I want there to be more communication between formula manufactures and parents, so that we all understand why certain ingredients are in our babies’ food. I want there to be ample options for kids with all sorts of food sensitivities; formulas for vegans; formula for parents who care about grass-fed cows. Because that’s the beauty of using a manufactured product – it can be altered. It can evolve.

What I don’t want is fear-mongering or confusion running around, when parents are already stressed and scared about formula use. I want parents to know that while DHA/ARA is indeed hexane-extracted, that does NOT mean that any hexane remains in the DHA/ARA. I want them to know that the reason many companies don’t use lactose is not because it’s expensive, but rather because cow lactose is different than human lactose, and many babies have a hard time tolerating it. I want them to know that yes, ingredients matter, and it’s absolutely okay to care about what goes into your body and your baby’s body (not that you need my permission or anyone else’s to feel how you’re going to feel, but you know what I mean), but the formulas on the market now have been tested, highly regulated, and proven to work beautifully for the majority of babies.

Insisting that we have more choices and better consumer knowledge does not have to mean throwing the generic brand-fed baby out with the bathwater. Let’s stop and talk to the people who are creating these formulas, and not just stop at the Cornucopia Institute (because both sides are affected by very strong bias, and you need to balance one extreme with the other), as well as some totally independent, science-minded folks. Let’s aim for truth and nuance rather than absolutes and middle-class food politics.

And now, I’m going to go celebrate the Cubs securing their place in the post-season, because that’s the only news really worth talking about, anyway.

 

***For a great breakdown of the organic formula options currently available in the US, visit the Incredible Infant’s Guide to Organic Formula.***

 

 

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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