About Suzanne Barston

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.

FFF Friday: “We all have stories…maybe we should listen with open minds and open hearts…”

It can take me an obscene amount of time to post an FFF story. Mostly, I just go in order of who sent what in when; other times, I choose specific posts because I want to highlight a particular issue that week. And other times, I am just a moron who somehow loses really great stories in the mess that is my inbox. 

This is one of those times. Meghan’s story is one of the most raw, honest accounts I’ve read in awhile, and she wrote it a month after her second child was born, when I’m sure everything was incredibly fresh and emotional.

But, um…that child is probably over a year old now.

Most likely (hopefully) Meghan and her kids are thriving, and decisions about formula and breastfeeding are a distant memory.  I really, really hope so. But for those who are still in the thick of it, this story needs to be posted. Even if it did take me a freaking year to do it. 

So thank you, Meghan, for your patience. And for writing this.

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Meghan’s Story

I tried to no avail to breast feed my first son. The hospital in which both of my babies were born are very much against formula leaving it as a last resort, they only offer the bottle when blood sugars are low or some other complication arises. There is no nursery to send your baby off too if you want to catch some zzz’s baby rooms in with you. Even my pregnancy with my first was difficult. I had to deal with feelings of inadequacies because I learned at 8 months that my baby was breech and he was big my doctor felt due to borderline preeclampsia and my babies size turning him might not be the best option. So instead of having a vaginal delivery which I desperately wanted I was going to have a c-section. That’s okay, I thought. At least I can still breast feed.

 

In the hospital me and the nurse tried to latch him on. Nope, not happening, it was a screaming wiggly nightmare. When he finally latched (after the nurse and the LC got him on-  it took 2 of them) he fell asleep immediately and his head rolled off of my chest. Then it started all over again. At one point there were 3, yes 3 LC’s and a friend of mine who was a breastfeeding champion, attempting to get him to latch on again. Nope nothing, and then a few hours later more of the same. He was on strike. My baby boy was obviously not a boob man. On day 3 his blood sugar took a little dip, so here came the bottle. He loved it, downed it all. Then the screaming bouts of pure hell started. He cried for hours after. Only further adding to my feelings of grief for not being able to get him latched on. I was alone on my room at 2 a.m. Crying uncontrollably unable to comfort my little bundle of gas.

I tried to BF every 2 hours. The night we got home after I had not slept for 5 days, my husband at the time finally had a day off (yes that’s right he did not take any time off for our son’s birth- he went back to work the same evening he was born). I went to take a well deserved nap only to wake up 3 hours later completely engorged and in so much pain I thought some one had dropped an acme anvil on my chest. My night gown was covered in milk that had leaked down to my knees. My milk had come in, an abundance of it, and my breast tripled in size. I was so relieved. FINALLY, I thought. Now he will finally get some milk and we will be fine. I woke my son up and tried for hours to get him latched. He finally would, kicking and screaming, then fall asleep, roll off, and rinse/repeat .

I was in so much pain, sleep deprived but determined. I tried this torture for a grand total of 6 hours. Yes, 6 hours of this vicious cycle until my (now ex) husband woke up in a foul mood and took the baby into the kitchen and made him a bottle of formula. Or poison, in my watery dark circled eyes. I slumped my shoulders and buried my face in my hands sobbing. I reached for the pump to relieve my aching breasts. He finished his bottle, cried from gas pains and finally slept. We scheduled a visit with the LC, more of the same.

This went on for 2 weeks. I tried to pump for those weeks, but I was alone all the time with the baby cause his dad worked nights and slept during the day with a colicky newborn. The only way to get this baby to sleep after the initial hour of agony (gas pains)  was to walk him around bouncing with each step or to take him for a car ride leaving this tired momma no time to pump. I had no support. My one friend at the time who wasn’t totally swamped with work or other life tasks was actually just rude about it. She had already expressed her displeasure with my scheduled c-section and my son’s circumcision. She told me to keep trying, she preached the benefits. The ear infections, the risk of SIDS, the bonding all the crap I had beat into me from every LC and mother I knew. Didn’t they understand I was exhausted, I was losing my mind?

I didn’t want to stop. I had the milk, I had the tools, but he just didn’t want it. I finally just gave up. The wave of guilt and self loathing washed over me. I couldn’t enjoy my baby, I could hardly get off the couch. I kept thinking of everything I couldn’t give him. Every bottle of formula, crushed me. It hurt me to the core of my being. I failed him. I felt so lost and had no one to talk too. Eventually I just pushed these things from my mind it got better once I went back to work, but still every time I saw a mother breastfeeding it would resurface. To the point of forcing a smile, and retreating to a bathroom to shed silent tears. Sometimes opening a new can of formula brought the tears on as well.  I told myself I wouldn’t have any more children. My marriage was failing, my son had colic, and ear infections. He was a stressful baby, very loved but stressful none the less.

The experience actually made me not want more children even though I had dreamed of at least two.

Fast forward 3 years. I met the man of my dreams, he loves my son. He helps raise him. I thought, okay, I can do this again, maybe not the breastfeeding but the baby part. I want to have children with this man things will be better and different.

After a while that good old stick popped up 2 lines, turned blue, and screamed pregnant. I took about 8 if them. My first thought was fear, not happiness but fear. Happy came immediately after but all in I saw in that first instant, was breastfeeding, colic, and a marriage that collapsed under the demands of new parents who got hitched too quick. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed-  in fact I told my spouse I wouldn’t even try after we left the hospital, that this one would be formula from the start. He was very supportive; he had heard the story.

I forced breastfeeding from my mind. I knew I would try in the hospital but I would stop the moment I got home. I knew it would be another c section. What I didn’t know was hypertension and gestational diabetes along with bed rest was right around the corner. Giving me loads of time to think and rethink my decision.  I forced the hope back like a damn lion tamer, no sir I would not put myself through that disappointment again.quotescover-JPG-72

 

Then… Here comes boy number 2. In the recovery room the nurse hands him to me and says it’s time to nurse. I cuddle him skin to skin for a moment, take a deep breath, and much to my surprise he latches on like a champ. I stare at him in awe, receiving much praise from the nurses and LC’s for the next few hours. Then there is a tiny spark of hope that I tried so hard to suppress for months. I feel a determination, I can do this!!!

 

He was content just being on the boob. Slept there for hours, cried anytime someone took him away from me. Then the problems started. They checked his blood sugar. It was low but not too bad, so they encouraged more nursing… any amount of colostrum is good they told me. So, a few more hours tick by of him on the boobs. The nurse checks him again and his blood sugar dropped more. She is now worried. An amazing LC comes to my room and she realizes the latch is perfect and although he is moving his jaw the suck is off. She then spends an hour and a half trying to get him to suck on anything, her finger, a dropper, we spend an hour expressing colostrum into anything even a spoon to just dump it in his open eager mouth. Nothing.

 

He is getting lethargic, and now throwing up even though he has had nothing to eat. Throwing up tons of amniotic fluid. Then they bring us the bottle. I welcome it, praying his blood sugar goes up. He is suckling, but not swallowing; it dribbles out of his mouth. An hour later they rush him away to the NICU, they have to get him to eat, his sugars are dangerously low. I am in shock what a difference a couple of hours can make

I am confined to a bed unable to bond with my newborn in the first 24 hours of his life. The tears flow freely and the guilt rears it’s head. My spouse is consoling me, telling me he will be okay. I get updates all through the night, he took a bottle but threw it up, he is getting a feeding tube, he is sleeping.

 

I am up all night, I finally demand they unhook me from everything less than 12 hours post op, I want to see my baby. I am reprimanded by the shift change nurse for not asking for a pump (which I didn’t know was available.) I take my painful first steps wait impatiently for the iv to finish, I am finally unhooked and in a wheelchair to go see my son. The second I come in the nurse informs me they just gave him a bottle but he threw the entire thing up so they might have to use the tube again, it is still in place.

 

I hold him and then I try breastfeeding. He greedily accepts, then we supplement with a sensitive formula. He keeps if down. I go back to my room for some much needed rest, then for the next 8 hours I force myself to walk to that room in the NICU every 2 hours to breastfeed and supplement and then back to my room to pump.

 

He comes back to us healthy and happy. I nurse, he gets a bottle, I pump. We get home, the nursing is going great, I am elated. He spends hours on the breast, then I pump. He cries until he gets the breast back. I have a sense that something isn’t right. I chalk it up to fear of failure. This is our routine for 2 days, until we go see another LC, for a weight, and jaundice check, and a consult. He has lost 5oz in 2 days!!! His jaundice has gone up significantly due to not getting enough to eat. She gives me hell about the latch and the positioning, his latch is good but not perfect. She wants me to do the football hold not the cross cradle. I am getting overwhelmed. He nurses for half an hour, all the while she is criticizing, and telling me not worry in the same breath. “Woman are designed to do this, breast is best, woman have done this through war and famine so you can too, your baby knows what to do, let him stay on the breast as long as possible.” In my head I keep thinking what if…I don’t make enough milk, how am I supposed to nurse around the clock when my ADHD 3 year old comes home from grandmas, what if my breast isn’t best?

 

Then she weighs him, the look on her face is enough to make me lose it, turns out I am only producing less than half an ounce between both breasts. Half of a measly ounce!!! She then pounds this into my head while I am sobbing and she herself is offering a bottle, “Don’t give up you need to give him breast milk because formula puts him at higher risk for SIDS.” The shock and anger in this tiny room is palpable. “Let me tell you a little something…with my first son I got postpartum OCD and anxiety, I never slept unless a family member or friend was awake watching my child sleep because I was terrified of SIDS.” I left the office feeling ashamed and heartbroken.

 

I went home and cried for hours, I made phone calls, I searched the web, I teetered between throwing in the towel soaked with sweat and tears or keeping on until I could add some damn blood to it. My mother finally came to visit and she told me simply and matter of factly, “honey there is nothing wrong with formula, enjoy your baby, stop stressing.” My spouse backed this up further: “Babe stop worrying, he is fine, he doesn’t care as long as he is fed.”

 

Finally I decided I would pump, and try nursing when my other child was sleeping. All the while supplementing. After all, I had done formula before, what is the harm? I felt a weight come off of me. My shoulders could move again. The tears stopped coming so often. I felt relieved. I tried fenugreek, I pumped every 2 hours like clockwork even at night. I tried hot showers, compresses, I spent tons of money on pumping supplies. I massaged, and ate the recommended calories and ate oats, and hummus. Teas and tinctures. I drank 70 oz of water a day.  I did all of this to produce less than 8 oz of breast milk a day.

Then I had a thought: What if I spent as much time with my boys as I did pumping and cleaning pump supplies? What if I stopped applying the creams to my sore cracked nipples? What if I just pump when I feel like it, when my body says “hey you’ve got a little milk here!” instead of trying to force a supply that just won’t come? What if I actually enjoyed feeding time by watching my son look at me like I am the best mom in the world just by offering him a bottle, Instead of dreading the pump afterwards? What if it doesn’t really matter because he is a healthy happy wonderful baby regardless of how he is nourished? I remind myself often that he is thriving, that his big brother is a smart, funny, energetic, loving and talented preschooler and he was formula fed. That his father is one of the smartest and amazing people I know and he was formula fed. That I am an amazing mom who battled colic, and raised one son in my own for years while working. That I am a mom who fights monsters,  kisses boo boos, plays make believe, watches Nick Jr happily and enjoys every second I spend with my children. That I am strong and brave. That I am human. That the naysayers and the moms who judge are insecure and set in their ways.

 

The first month of my second son’s life was an emotional, difficult journey for me. But my decision to use formula has been a well informed and empowering one. I feel better about myself, and my family. I can hold my head high and proudly say that I used to be a mom who judged until this epiphany. We as woman should never judge one another, least of all for our mothering abilities. We all have stories. Maybe we should listen with open minds and open hearts to our fellow mom friends. I am a mother and a damn good one and you know what? I was formula fed too.

 ***

Want to share your story? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

FFF Friday: “We still have our babies’ best interests at heart…”

So, this week has basically been my own personal episode of “House, MD”. Or maybe “ER”.  Or, “Grey’s Anatomy” without all the hot doctors.

I won’t go into all the details, mostly because I have a mild concussion at the moment and am seeing 2 keyboards in front of me instead of the usual one, which is rather disconcerting…

But you know, this all makes me realize – I have a hard enough time with medical stuff and pain without having a newborn on my hands. I can’t even begin to imagine what Louisa went through… so her story feels very appropriate this week. Moms who have traumatic births or suffer from physical ailments in the immediate postpartum period need special help and special care – not universal “bests” and static recommendations.

Or something like that. Not sure I’m making any sense right now….!

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The (mildly concussed) FFF

 

***

Louisa’s Story

 

I had planned on breastfeeding from the moment I found out I was pregnant. The thought of it made me slightly uncomfortable, but I was going to do it no matter what and find a way to be comfortable with it. I attended the classes, bought the supplies – breast pump, nursing cover, special bottles for when I went back to work. I even pictured what times during the day I would pump while at work. I had a fairly easy pregnancy, no complications and a big, healthy baby boy. And then everything came crashing down…

 

I went in for a routine check at 39 weeks where I was promptly told I was not going to be leaving the hospital until I had our baby boy due to skyrocketing blood pressure. I was excited and terrified. Labor was, well you know labor. Nothing too horrible except it lasted for 42 hours and then everything changed.

 

Our son was laid on my stomach after he was born and I could tell something was wrong, no crying, not moving and not breathing. I had barely touched him before the doctors yanked him off me to start resuscitating him. As you can imagine, I was hysterical, I was convinced he was dead. Once they got him stable they briefly held him up to show me and then rushed him to the NICU. When the NICU doctor came and talked to us I heard big medical terms; nuchal cord, metabolic acidosis, subdural hematoma, etc. quotescover-JPG-51

 

After I was finally wheeled to recovery, around 6 am, mere hours after delivery, the nurse started to promptly show me how to use the breast pump and instruct me to do it every 2 to 3 hours. I was in a fog and could barely pay attention to the instructions. However, my first concern was waiting for the epidural to wear off so I walk and go see my son. I spent an awful 5 days in the hospital of which was a blur of trying to rest, going to the NICU and trying to keep everyone updated on our son’s condition. To top it all off, I had to somewhere in there try to find time to pump. I actually remember the nurse fussing at me the day after labor because I had only tried pumping once and I certainly wasn’t doing it at night, I was trying to get much needed rest. Plus I was more concerned with visiting my son.

 

Once I was finally let out of the hospital, I went home with a nasty, itchy rash on my back of unknown origin. I did the pumping thing around the clock and was completely and utterly exhausted. And I was also going up to the hospital two times a day. I continued to pump to give the milk to the nurses to inject in our son’s feeding tube and got somewhat more successful. It actually made me feel accomplished, I couldn’t control my son being in the hospital, but I could at least give him the best medicine and food possible, my breast milk. This continued for about a week (an eternity at the time).

 

But then, the rash on my back was not getting any better, was spreading to my arms and was extremely itchy and now my boobs were so itchy they hurt. It was as if I was allergic to pumping, it was that deep, under the skin itch you can’t scratch. I seriously wanted to scratch them off. I finally went to both my OBGYN and my family doctor who gave me antibiotics and a cream. Which, the cream, of course, I couldn’t use while pumping. So I tossed it aside and hoped this was just a yeast infection of some sort and took the antibiotics. And then I started getting extremely ill, like being woken up out of a deep sleep to run to the bathroom with excruciating stomach cramps kind of ill.

It was about this time that I had several mental breakdowns at the hospital. I felt like I was constantly watching the clock to see when I needed to rush home and pump instead of spending time with my son. While the NICU was encouraging me to pump there, it just wasn’t comfortable for me with nurses coming in and out and seeing my son hooked up to a million different things. So I would visit with our son for a couple of hours then rush home to pump and then come back. It was exhausting. And finally, the light bulb went off, why am I doing this to myself? I should be spending the time with my son and stop worrying about rushing home to pump. I mentioned it off hand-idly  to my husband that I was thinking about stopping breast feeding all together. At first he didn’t understand why. But luckily that night, the nurse that was duty with our son understood completely and reassured me that I had to do what was best for me and my baby. She felt like society puts way too much pressure on women to have to breastfeed and that they’re a failure and lazy if they don’t. So that was it, I stopped cold turkey. I was thankful my son had at least a week of breast milk before I quit.

 

And boy am I glad I did. Because that was when all hell broke loose. The rash was finally clearing up and the itchy boobs gradually got better, (although that took a good month for them to go back to normal). But I was getting sicker and sicker. That night after I made the decision to stop pumping, I couldn’t go back up to the hospital for three days because I was so sick. I spent my 31st birthday exhausted on the sofa and completely devastated to not be able to visit my son. I went back to my OBGYN and they took a stool sample. I found out I had C-Diff (a very serious and severe intestinal infection) and E-Coli. I was started on antibiotics right away (it took two rounds for the C-Diff).

 

Long story, long. I stopped breastfeeding by choice not because I wasn’t producing milk but because it was turning me into a wreck and I couldn’t be there for my son. Not to mention the illnesses would have eventually forced me to stop anyway. And now looking back, I know I was also battling severe post-partum depression which I also finally got treatment for.

 

I still sometimes am hesitant to tell people I bottle feed or after I tell them I wait for questions or an eyebrow raise. But I know I made the best choice for myself therefore making myself a better mother. When our son finally came home, I was a crazy person, sleep deprivation takes you to a whole new level of crazy. Plus, this being our first child we had no idea what we were doing. So the formula feeding was definitely helpful at 3am when I just needed 2 hours of uninterrupted sleep so I let my husband take over. Or in order to keep my sanity I had to get out of the house and take the baby to the park (and I’m not one of those that would have been able to whip my breast out in public if I was still breastfeeding).

 

And now as I plan for our future children, breastfeeding is not going to be part of the plan. I know I had a really horrible experience with everything the first time around. But I realize, I want to be able to adjust having a new baby and enjoy their newborn stage without worrying about pulling out the boob at 3am or wonder if they’re getting enough milk. And for those times that I need to get out of the house with or without the baby, I know I can do it and leave my husband in charge and not have to worry about pumping enough milk to cover the time I’m gone. For all those breast feeding moms that can make it work, awesome job, you rock! But for all us other moms, for whatever reason, can’t or choose not to, we rock too. We still have our babies’ best interests at heart and a healthy mom equals a healthy baby!

 

***

Want to share your story? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com

FFF Friday: “I secretly wanted it to end.”

I recently read an article that suggested we are going about this postpartum thing all wrong. The author urged women not to do anything but rest and breastfeed for the first month or so after giving birth – to let the dishes stay dirty, to not worry about losing the pregnancy weight, to just focus on your baby.

In theory, this sounds rather blissful. But thinking back to my own postpartum experience, I don’t know how blissful it would be in practice. For some of us, getting back into shape, getting out into the world, feeling like our old selves – these are essentials. They are part of who we are. And when you’re already struggling with a seismic shift in identity, those little things that make us who we are become incredibly important. 

I love Sarah’s story of going to the mall, and how a little makeup made her reconnect with who she was. It’s important to take the pressure off postpartum women, but it’s equally important to recognize that for some women, lying in bed and nursing is not going to relieve that pressure. For some, getting back to “normalcy” is exactly what they need to clear their heads and hearts, so that they truly can enjoy their babies.

Happy Friday, fearless ones,

The FFF

***

Sarah’s Story

When I was pregnant my husband took a breastfeeding class at our local hospital. There were women and men from all walks of life, first time and experienced parents. We bought into the “breast is best” mentality. The lactation consultant went through information that we could use to help us with breastfeeding and what our partner could do to help. Wow! They made it look like a piece of cake, the most natural thing that you would ever do. I was expecting it all to happen naturally because it was the only option. Boy, I was in for the emotional ride of my life.

Ironically my breasts did not enlarge while I was pregnant. I really wanted them to because for once I wanted larger than a B cup! I asked my OBGYN about it and he was convinced that they would. He was right, well to a certain extent..

I gave birth in a baby friendly hospital. My delivery was very easy I believe by most standards. I was relieved to get an epidural. I was terrified of the pain but I literally felt nothing and was so happy about it. I was in so much pain prior to that point I wasn’t enjoying the process. Immediate skin to skin to promote breastfeeding and my daughter roomed in with us. She would not latch, I was so upset they sent in a lactation consultant. The lactation consultant was a nice lady, she showed us different holds and advised us to use a nipple shield.

We got home and my milk didn’t come in for a few days. My daughter had jaundice and needed to gain weight, but no milk so this was magically supposed to happen? We went to the pediatrician 3 days later and she lost more weight. She would fall asleep at the breast and we tried everything to keep her awake. I would wake every 2 hours to feed her. The pediatrician said to supplement with 1oz of formula and their office lactation consultant would contact me.

Since my daughter was lazy at the breast I started pumping 15 minute sessions. I would get 2-3ozs total at the beginning. One breast was underproducing, I’d get .5 oz. I could tell my breasts were lopsided. The lactation consultant called to check in and help. She suggest fenugreek and pumping immediately after nursing. She called every week for 6 weeks to try and help. At one point I was so frustrated spending my entire day pumping and/or crying because not much was happening and I was giving it all I had. I was exhausted, delusional, lashing out on my husband and he was my top supporter. He would do anything to help and I was taking my breastfeeding problems on him. The 6th week came, at this point I was giving the breast milk I could get and supplementing with formula. The lactation consultant said again I just needed to keep trying that she breastfed all her kids exclusively for 18 months. I wanted to tell her to shove it, I was just trying to get through the day without a nervous breakdown and feeling terrible my daughter was getting a combination of breast milk and formula. I told her everything was going great literally so she would stop calling me. My mom and sister were successful at breastfeeding so when I talked to them about it they just didn’t understand.

Fast forward to week 8, still pumping getting 3 ozs if I was lucky every pumping session but my nipples hurt so bad I just secretly wanted it to end. I was so depressed I had to get out of the house. I was crying in my car but put on a brave face to go out in public. I found a store in the mall and this really nice lady did my makeup and complimented me on how beautiful my daughter was. I thought at least I look good! I lost it again, I hadn’t thought about this since the day she was born because I was spending my entire day pumping and trying to get her to latch. She was so beautiful.

I called my OBGYN. I told him how anxious and stressed I was still with the whole thing. We spoke about the issue before. With the exception of my husband, he kept me sane. He was so matter of fact, funny and supportive. I told him how I felt judged, a failure for this not working out how I planned and how people said formula was poison. He said all this crap people say is not true, he was formula fed as well, to not be so hard on myself. My first thought was he is a doctor, just maybe if my daughter was as smart as my husband she still had a shot at going to MIT. What a relief!

Things were looking up! I quit the whole pumping nonstop, frustration and began exclusively formula feeding my daughter. The blessing in this is she immediately came to life not cranky from being hungry and I was a normal, sane person. I was still feeling anxious but not as bad. I was prescribed medication from my family doctor but I did everything I could to not take them. I had an appointment with my OBGYN again to get on a different birth control and I spoke with him about the meds and my anxiety. He made a few suggestions to relax and that therapy might help me.

I joined a few moms groups and talked to friends about my struggles. Most of them were successfully breastfeeding. I heard everything, that it was a mistake getting an epidural as it delays your milk, not eating the  placenta and getting it encapsulated was the reason for my blues. I immediately felt judged by the breastfeeding moms. The connection they had with their babies and with each other made me feel worse. A lovely mom ask me if I wanted her breast milk because she had reserves. For a moment I considered, but after I thought, oh how ridiculous this sounds! I was at my wits end and turned to therapy to talk this out. It helped me realize I was doing the best with what I had.

My life has changed. I still feel icky at times because I wanted to breastfeed so bad I then  remember how it robbed me of my sanity and time with my daughter. My husband and I have amazing times together (no leaky boobs!, we go out on dates) and I have a glass of wine here and there and don’t feel guilty. My daughter gets enough to eat and slept through the night almost immediately with formula. I found a new pediatrician that supports my decision and that my daughter loves. I’m ecstatic my daughter is healthy and thriving and everyday we have quality time together. Its amazing and made me realize how lucky I am and letting it gooooo. I’m a great Mom!

 ***

Want to share your story? Email me at formulafeeders@gmail.com.

Kindness Wins – An interview with Galit Breen

There are days I love social media, and days I despise it.

I love that the internet has provided a community for so many people unable to find camaraderie or connection in their own geographic areas. I love that it’s allowed me to find all of you, and to curate a collection of your stories that the world might otherwise not hear.

But I hate what it’s done to our sense of self. I hate that we are affected by what random, often anonymous/fake-profiled strangers say about us. I hate that it’s facilitated a culture of Bully-Lite, where people can be unbearably cruel and intolerant without ever being held accountable.

I hate that it brings out the worst in us, and I love that it brings out the best.

That’s why I am so in love with Galit Breen’s new book, Kindness Wins. While it’s been promoted as a guidebook of sorts for helping kids learn “how to be kind online”, it’s so much more than that. It’s really a love letter to social media, but with caveats; it urges us to work within this new social structure in a more conscious way and bring old-fashioned courtesy to the new frontier.

In my opinion, no community needs this book more than the parenting community. And not just because we have to teach our kids how to navigate the internet more graciously, but because we need to teach ourselves how to.

Below, Galit provides us with her insight and offers suggestions for those of us dealing with the sometimes underhanded, often overt cruelty of parenting social media. I hope you will find it as useful as I did. (I’ve been trying to incorporate her ideas into my own online dealings, and I’m already finding that it makes a difference. Seriously.)

 

FFF: Can you tell us how the idea for the book came about?

Galit Breen (GB): Last summer I wrote an article about marriage for The Huffington Post and the comments that came in on it were about my weight and how fat I looked in my wedding dress. I went to a very sad place at first, but a few months later, when I had moved past the sadness, I wrote a second article for xoJane calling out my cyberbullies and saying two simple things: we can do and be better than talking about people’s bodies at first contact and let’s be kinder to each other online. That article went viral and was featured on Time.com, the Today show, and Inside Edition.

Right around the same time, my daughter began more-than-hinting that she’d like to tweet, pin, and post photos online. I had a hard time wrapping my brain (and heart) around sending her into an online space where I had just been cyberbullied. But I love social media and the connectivity and creativity it provides more than I’m scared of it, so I didn’t say no.

Galit Breen. Photo credit: Nicole Spangler

Galit Breen. Photo credit: Nicole Spangler

Instead, we sat down together and took a look at accounts of kids we both knew and adored. It was then that I saw the kinds of mistakes kids make online. I knew that they weren’t making these mistakes because they’re mean kids, they were making them because they didn’t instinctively know how to be kind online.

We’re the first generation of parents and teachers raising digital kids without having been digital kids ourselves, so we can’t look back at what we were taught to guide what we’ll teach our kids. So when they reach a certain age, we send them online sans the (kindness) talk that maneuvering online requires.

Realizing this, I knew (almost) immediately that I could use what I know from six years of social media work + ten years of parenting and classroom teaching to change this conversation. And that’s how the idea for Kindness Wins was born.

FFF: Why do you think it’s so important for us to be kinder online, and to teach our kids to do the same? 

GB: The fact that the article that went viral was the one calling for online kindness says a lot of good things about our society. I think we all realize that this space we’re in right now where our answer to online cruelty is, Don’t read the comments, isn’t quite right. The rub should really be, Let’s change the comments.

By banding together to commit to this, we can create a culture of kindness where we expect kindness and we’re surprised by cyberbullying, where we’re all watching out for each other and for each others’ children, where there’s a safer and kinder online space for all of us.quotescover-JPG-72

FFF: What about when you are dealing with strangers on Facebook forums and comment sections? Since these are basically anonymous strangers, is it really that important to be nice? 

GB: There’s someone on the other side of the screen is the foundation of online kindness. We should treat people online in the exact same way we’d treat them in person. But our online interactions begin with a cropped and filtered avatar and picking and choosing what to share and how to share it is much like editing our lives. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things! But they do set us up for forgetting what deep down I think we all know—there’s a human being on the other side of our comments.

Because when we interact online we don’t have physical cues—teary eyes, shaky voice–to tell us if we’ve hurt someone’s feelings, we need to understand the impact of online words perfectly before we engage online. The good news is that their impact is exactly the same as that of in-real-life words. So if we wouldn’t walk up to someone and say the comment out loud, to their face, while looking into their eyes, then we shouldn’t type them online.

FFF: Do you think that the way we interact online rubs off on our in-real-life interactions, or are people generally nicer in the real world? In other words, how do our online personas affect our real-life personas?

GB: This is such an interesting question! It’s so important for kids—and adults—to know that the way they treat people online and how they present themselves online should match the way they treat people and present themselves in person. When we forget these, we fall into the traps of “Greener Grass Perception,” jealousy, inauthenticity, and accidental meanness.

Many people see the potential for online dishonesty as a detriment or a reason to stay offline. But I think social media provides so many opportunities for connecting with others and being creative. So I see it as a freeing positive—the invitation to just be you.

Social media is also the great equalizer for introverts and extroverts—everyone has a voice online. I learned how to use my voice, that others would listen, that everyone has a story, and how to connect with others through their stories and mine via blogging and social media. This experience opened so many friendship and career doors for me! So in this way, when used correctly, I do think that our online experiences can affect our real life ones.

This is why it’s so important to have these conversations with our kids and with each other. We all have a choice in how we use social media and how we choose to let it affect us. Might as well choose wisely, right?

FFF: Let’s say you vehemently disagree with what someone says in a Facebook thread, on any given “hot topic”. Is there a way to state your opinion politely and kindly, but still get the point across?

GB: Yes, absolutely. The very first thing you can do to neutralize the intensity of a conversation is to remember that it’s not our job to convince others to think like we do. All we need to do in a dialogue is to speak up for what we believe in, speak our truth, and listen to the other person from the point of view that they’re speaking theirs.

The good news is that speaking to share, learn, and listen is much easier than speaking to convince!

Puzzle-pieced to this truth, is remembering that in most things, most arguments, most disagreements, there’s room for both people to be right—and both to be wrong. This is why some arguments get so heated.galit-breen-kindness-wins

So the above two concepts are built around those who do speak up, and want/need to do so kindly. For those who shy away from debates and dialogue for the sake of not getting involved, one of the most important things I’ve realized I want my own kids to know is this: Kindness and assertiveness aren’t opposites.

While I think that polite words and gentle hearts make the world go round, what changes the world, what also matters, is confidence, assertiveness, and the belief that you matter enough to take up space and to make a difference. These traits aren’t inconveniences, they’re gifts. Kindness and assertiveness can go hand in hand.

FFF: If someone is acting cruel or “trolling”, what is the best way to deal with it? Should you ignore? Respond? Attack back?

GB: There’s not one right way here. You have to know where you’re at—can you engage in a way where you’re acting like you want to? When I was first cyberbullied, I was too sad to respond. I gave myself the time to be sad, and responded only once I had moved away from it. I say if you need that time, take it. And if someone you love is being cyberbullied and they seem to need that time, gift it to them, too. But once you—or they—are ready, then absolutely speak up.

Nothing good happened for me when I was sad and quiet. Real change happened when I spoke up. So many good (kind!) people magnet-ed to my side and I wasn’t alone anymore.

So I say ignore or take the time to be sad or mad as needed, and speak up when you’re ready. While I don’t think that attacking back does anything good for anyone, speaking up for others does.

FFF: Do you think the internet has been more of a force for good or bad in terms of finding connection, support, etc? Should we all just turn off the computer, or is there a benefit to learning to interact digitally that can help our kids (and us) be better humans overall?

GB: I’m absolutely in love with social media—I found so many friendships and career opportunities via it. So I definitely see more goodness to it than bad.

For our kids, it’s where they’ll need to have a presence for future work opportunities and where they’re connecting with each other today. It’s not our job to take away either one of these opportunities from them, it’s our job to teach them how to grasp at them safely and kindly.

Just like our kids needed to learn how to ride bikes, throw balls, and read books, they need to learn this. The good news is that we’ve all been teaching our kids for a long time, and we’re all perfectly capable of doing so. (We’ve got this!)

FFF: Any other advice for parents navigating the online world, so that they can set a better example for their kids in the future?

GB: Post like they’re watching, treat being their example as a privilege, and grasp at the teachable conversations with wild abandon.

Breastfeeding and Leukemia: Old news is no news

By the time you read this, many of you are probably already in panic mode.

 

The news outlets are probably heralding the news of a NEW study, PROVING that breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk of leukemia, or the unfortunate corollary, that formula feeding raises a child’s risk of developing this cancer.

 

Take a deep breath. This “study” is actually a meta-study. Meta-studies are often considered the highest level of research, since they are synthesizing data and ruling out certain study findings based on quality criteria, thus weeding out the “bad” studies and only showing us the ones with results worth caring about. They are very useful, because one study alone doesn’t tell us much; many high-quality studies, when looked at together, can give us a much better feel for what the reality of the research actually is.

 

But the same thing that makes meta-studies so useful can also be their fatal flaw. If the body of research they are considering “quality” is not actually that high-quality at all, then the results they get are far less impressive. As Joan Wolf has suggested, if you do the use the same poorly-designed study protocol one hundred times, you may very well get the same result. But that result comes from poor design.

 

That’s basically what’s going on in this study, Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence: A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review. Despite numerous references to controlling for “quality” in the studies they chose, there is no discussion of which confounding factors were controlled for in any of these studies:

 

Selection criteria for the present meta-analysis included articles researching the association between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia… Studies had to be case control for the purpose of the statistical analysis; have breastfeeding as a measured exposure and leukemia as a measured outcome; include data on breastfeeding duration in months, including but not limited to, 6 months or more (where relevant data were unavailable in the publication, the authors of the studies were contacted); and been published in peer-reviewed journals with full text available in English. Two investigators… independently searched the literature, reviewed and assessed the articles, and decided on inclusion. We identified 25 case control studies examining the relationship between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia risk, 7 of them were not included in any previous meta-analysis.

I looked up most of the studies they referenced, and they were pretty similar to the general quality of infant feeding studies (in other words, lacking a lot of necessary and relevant controls).  And sometimes, it wasn’t even the study authors’ faults – because the design of the study didn’t really allow for much control, or because they just didn’t focus that closely on breastfeeding. For example, one study they referenced as “high quality” had “never breastfed” as one of many factors they examined for correlation to leukemia. And yes, “never breastfed” had a moderately higher rate of leukemia- but so did “having eczema”.

 

On a positive note, since the study did not/could not control for exclusive breastfeeding, but rather just “breastfeeding to six months”, this might mean that the benefit could be conferred even for supplementing or combo-feeding moms, which is a type of breastfeeding more women are finding it possible to do. That also suggests, to me, that more research needs to be done into the mechanisms behind this benefit – for example, did they control for the type of formula used? Is it something in the formula, or simply something that the formula is lacking? Did they control for the reasons the babies stopped breastfeeding in the first place? Could introduction of solid foods have something to do with it (the six month aspect is intriguing – why not a great benefit at 4 months? 5 months? What is so important about that 6 month mark)?

 

It would be far more interesting and newsworthy to see a metastudy which really controlled for confounders – one that only used studies which did their due diligence in controlling for everything that can screw up infant feeding research, and discussed how they went about this.

 

And something else: remember the outrage when an interviewee on this blog hypothesized that there might be a association between insufficient feeding/brain injury in the neonatal period and autism? The consensus was that it was premature to even speak of a possible association – to even put the idea out there – which I fully understand (again, those were the physician’s views, not mine – I do not have a sufficient understanding of this particular body of research to even converse intelligently about it). Yet, some of the same people who have run this physician over the rails for merely suggesting her hypothesis, are the first to jump on the not-breastfeeding-causes-cancer bandwagon. And that’s just hypocritical, because you can’t be raging about scaring parents unnecessarily, and then in the same breath, scaring parents unnecessarily. Until we have a figured out exactly how breastfeeding until 6 months may prevent leukemia, there is simply no reason to believe it’s anything more than an association.

 

This science isn’t my biggest concern with this one, however (mostly because there was no science involved in this particular study – just an analysis of other people’s science). I’m far more interested in how the authors jump to the conclusion that breastfeeding is a “highly accessible, low-cost public health measure”, as quoted below:

 

The meta-analysis of all 18 studies indicated that compared with no or shorter breastfeeding, any breastfeeding for 6 months or longer was associated with a 19% lower risk for childhood leukemia (odds ratio, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.73-0.89). A separate meta-analysis of 15 studies indicated that ever breastfed compared with never breastfed was associated with an 11% lower risk for childhood leukemia (odds ratio, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.84-0.94), although the definition of never breastfed differed between studies. All meta-analyses of subgroups of the 18 studies showed similar associations. Based on current meta-analyses results, 14% to 19% of all childhood leukemia cases may be prevented by breastfeeding for 6 months or more.

CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE

Breastfeeding is a highly accessible, low-cost public health measure. This meta-analysis that included studies not featured in previous meta-analyses on the subject indicates that promoting breastfeeding for 6 months or more may help lower childhood leukemia incidence, in addition to its other health benefits for children and mothers.

 

“Highly accessible”  is not exactly an accurate representation. As I said to reporter Tara Haelle for Forbes.com, “Women have clearly gotten the message that “breast is best” – in fact, reduction of leukemia risk is one of the benefits public health posters like to emphasize, as it packs an emotional punch. This is not “new” news.” And if women weren’t finding it easy of possible to breastfeed for 6 months before, despite being freaked out that their kids might get cancer because of it, this reiteration of old news isn’t going to change that.

 

I actually think it would be amazing if they did discover some factor in breastmilk that could reduce cancer. It’s certainly plausible; we’ve already seen evidence of cancer-fighting properties in breastmilk, via lab studies. But our goal should be isolating that factor in a way that we might recreate it, or at least mitigate the risks to babies who cannot receive their mother’s milk, rather than using it as a motivating factor for breastfeeding promotion.

 

Why? Because there always have been, and always will be, children who cannot  or will not get breastmilk from their mother for 6 months. We have always needed and desired alternatives. If we can focus on finding out why there is an association between breastfeeding and leukemia risk (and again- take a breath, because there have also been studies that showed no significant correlation between the two, so it’s certainly not an open and shut case), maybe we can mitigate that risk for those who are not breastfeeding. Now that would be something worthy of some juicy headlines.

Note: For some excellent reporting on this study, please see Forbes.com and USA Today. 

 

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