Two sides to every story – except when you’re talking about breastfeeding

I’m starting to wonder if the health journalism community needs some lessons in scientific reading comprehension, or if we’re all just so convinced of the benefits of breastfeeding that we read every study with rose colored glasses. Either way, the discrepancies in the reporting of a group of new infant feeding studies are so alarming that I don’t even know where to start.

You know what? I do know where to start. How about the studies themselves.

Source: www.encognitive.com

Source: www.encognitive.com

All come from a special supplement published in the journal Pediatrics, using evidence from the 2005–2007 IFPS II (Infant Feeding Practices Study II) and follow-up data collected when the children were 6 years old.

A couple articles from this publication are specifically making headlines, the first being Breastfeeding and the Risk of Infection at 6 Years. The results:

The most common past-year infections were colds/upper respiratory tract (66%), ear (25%), and throat (24%) infections. No associations were found between breastfeeding and colds/upper respiratory tract, lung, or urinary tract infections. Prevalence of ear, throat, and sinus infections and number of sick visits differed according to breastfeeding duration, exclusivity, and timing of supplementing breastfeeding with formula (P < .05). Among children ever breastfed, children breastfed for ≥9 months had lower odds of past-year ear (adjusted odds ratio [aOR]: 0.69 [95% confidence interval (95% CI): 0.48–0.98]), throat (aOR: 0.68 [95% CI: 0.47–0.98]), and sinus (aOR: 0.47 [95% CI: 0.30–0.72]) infections compared with those breastfed >0 to <3 months. High breast milk intensity (>66.6%) during the first 6 months was associated with lower odds of sinus infection compared with low breast milk intensity (<33.3%) (aOR: 0.53 [95% CI: 0.35–0.79]).

Translation: No link between breastfeeding for any duration and the risk of colds/upper respiratory infections, lung infections, or UTIs. Babies breastfed for any amount of time had lower risk of ear, throat and sinus infections, and babies primarily breastfed for the first 6 months had lower odds of sinus infections.

The second one to cause a stir is Infant Feeding Practices and Reported Food Allergies at 6 Years. The researchers found:

In this cohort of 6-year-old US children, socioeconomic (higher maternal education and income) and atopic (family history of food allergy and infant eczema) factors were significant predictors of pFA (probable food allergy). Our analysis did not find a significant association between pFA and feeding practices at established dietary milestones in infancy. However, among children who did not have pFA by age 1 year, exclusive breastfeeding of ≥4 months was marginally associated with lower odds of developing pFA at age 6 years. This potential benefit was not observed among the high-risk atopic children, which suggests the need to separate children according to atopic risk when studying preventive benefits of exclusive breastfeeding on food allergy.

Translation: Kids in higher socioeconomic demographics, kids with higher-educated moms, and those with family history of food allergies were at higher risk for food allergies by the age of 6 than their peers. The only time breastfeeding or not seemed to make a difference was in kids with none of the risk factors I just mentioned, who had been breastfed at least 4 months.

A slew of other studies were also included in this supplement, and were summarized by a team of AAP researchers:

The first set of articles examines child health outcomes at 6 years of age. The study by Li and colleagues demonstrates that longer breastfeeding and later introduction of foods or beverages other than breast milk are associated with lower rates of ear, throat, and sinus infections in the year preceding the survey. However, they find no associations with upper or lower respiratory or urinary tract infections. Luccioli and co-workers find no significant associations between exclusive breastfeeding duration or timing of complementary food introduction and overall food allergy at 6 years old. Pan and colleagues examine childhood obesity at 6 years of age and show that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by infants doubles the odds of later obesity. Lind et al describe how breastfeeding is associated with various aspects of psychosocial development. They show a protective relationship between duration of breastfeeding and emotional, conduct, and total psychosocial difficulties, but these relationships become statistically nonsignificant after other confounding factors are controlled for. Though certainly not conclusive, these studies demonstrate that infant feeding is predictive of some later health outcomes (eg, some infectious diseases and childhood obesity) but not others (eg, food allergy and psychosocial development).

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported these findings, publishing an entry on its website called “How infant feeding practices affect children at age 6: A follow up.” Great, neutral, accurate title. Here is what they report:

The longer a mother breastfeeds and waits to introduce foods and drinks other than breastmilk, the lower the odds her child will have ear, throat, and sinus infections at 6 years of age.
Children who breastfeed longer consume water, fruit, and vegetables more often at 6 years of age and consume fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages less often.
When children drink sugar-sweetened beverages during the first year of life, this doubles the odds that they will drink sugar-sweetened beverages at 6 years of age.
When children eat fruit and vegetables infrequently during the first year of life, this increases the odds that they will continue to eat fruit and vegetables infrequently at 6 years of age.
Study authors conclude the data emphasize the need to establish healthy eating behaviors early in life, as this could predict healthy eating behaviors later in life. For more information about the IFPS-II and the IFPS-II follow-up study, visit www.cdc.gov/ifps.

Pretty clear, right? 

Apparently not.

From ABC News: Breastfeeding May Influence Kids’ Eating Habits at Age 6

“Childhood nutrition experts not involved with the study said the findings provide additional weight to the importance of shaping a child’s diet early. Dr. David Katz, editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said the findings serve to underscore the long-established relationship between breastfeeding and health in mothers and children.

 

“The question we need to be asking is not ‘Why should mothers breastfeed?’ but, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’” Katz said. “For all mammals, our first food is breast milk.”

For the love of god. At least now we know about the publication bias of Childhood Obesity. 

No mention of the fact that the researchers themselves stressed that breastfeeding was only protective in certain ways, and not others, and that aside from consuming more veggies/fruits/water, there were no other nutritional advantages associated with breastfeeding in this study. No mention that they found no positive association between breastfeeding and food allergies in the highest-risk populations.Just a skewed interpretation that makes it sound like breastfeeding is the MOST important part of your child’s future health and nutrition, instead of ONE important part.

Strange framing also comes from Today.com:

Breast-feeding in infancy also increased the likelihood that children would be consuming a healthy diet later on. At age 6, children who were breast-fed drank sugary beverages less often and consumed water, fruits and vegetables more often than those who were bottle-fed, CDC researchers found.

 

That all makes sense, Scanlon said. “We know from other studies that children’s eating behaviors and preferences develop very early and are influenced by a variety of factors,” she explained. “They seem to have an innate preference for sweet and salty foods and dislike bitter flavors, which are found in vegetables.”

 

That can be changed when children are exposed to in utero and through breast milk to the flavors found in vegetables, Scanlon said. “Breast-fed infants are more open to different flavors,” she added.

Sure, that makes sense. But considering the same study found that breastfed infants were just as likely to eat junky savory/salty snacks, I am not sure that one could say breastfeeding = “healthy diet”. What the study did find was that they drank a statistically significant less juice, and ate more fruits and veggies at age 6. My daughter can’t stand juice and eats her weight in brussel sprouts, broccoli, and blueberries. But she also pours sugar on oatmeal and sneaks chocolate chips from my fridge and basically lives on soy yogurt. I wouldn’t call that a “healthy diet”.

WebMD’s title suggests a much different story than the one we can glean from the studies – “Breast-Feeding Lowers Kids’ Allergy, Infection Risk” – and frames the findings in a way that is…. well, see for yourself:

They found that children who had been exclusively breast-fed for four months or more had about half the odds of developing a food allergy compared to children who had been breast-fed for a lesser amount of time.

 

As Wu noted, the finding did have one limitation, however. “While breast-feeding did not decrease food allergies in high-risk populations, such as families who already have a history of food allergy, there was a decrease in low-risk populations,” she said.

“One limitation, however”? Um, considering the highest rates of allergy were found in the “high risk populations”, and this particular finding was somewhat brushed aside by the researchers themselves, it’s puzzling that WebMD latched on (sorry) to it.

And then –

Another expert said the studies provide valuable information.

 

Nina Eng, chief clinical dietitian at Plainview Hospital in Plainview, N.Y., said the findings “point out two of the many important benefits of breast-feeding.”

 

“These articles provide evidence that should inspire new moms to breast-feed their children,” she said.

 

Does it? Will it? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think any of these findings are so convincing that they might “inspire” a mom to breastfeed if she’s already decided not to. For those who have chosen to breastfeed, sure, maybe they will be somewhat heartening…. but I find it seriously odd that the media is spinning these studies as evidence of a “breastfeeding boost” (thank you, Today.com) instead of the more realistic framing: we now have a body of evidence that shows that choosing better foods at weaning and being responsive to feeding cues may have lasting effects.

In other words, give your kids produce and don’t force feed them. But that’s not as sexy as talking about breastfeeding, so…. BOOBS. There you go. Problem solved.

 

Disaster in the Philippines: Why overzealous breastfeeding promotion has no place in relief plans

Dear FFF,

We are based in Manila which, thankfully, was spared from the brunt of typhoon Haiyan. As you may be aware, our fellow Filipinos from the other islands of Leyte and Palawan suffered from this catastrophe. Aid has been slow in coming, and the situation is now miserable and desperate. Donations from all over the world are coming in, but the logistics of getting them to the people who need them are difficult because many of the islands are isolated and cannot be easily reached. Many have not eaten since Saturday. They also do not have clean drinking water and are living in the streets amidst rubble and dead bodies.

Which brings me to my question/issue – What is the best way to feed a baby in a crisis situation like this?

 Our Department of Health has BANNED donations of formula milk – powdered or pre-mix – because of the perils of formula and because it undermines breastfeeding.  According to the Department of Health, the best solution is to breastfeed, or if the mother is no longer breastfeeding, to give support towards re-lactation. If these are not feasible, then the next alternative is wet nursing. I do understand that this is the exact reason why formula has been deemed “dangerous – because preparation of formula in unsafe, unclean conditions (including using unclean water and bottles) can lead to diarrhea and infant mortality.  However, I also believe that the options given by the Department of Health practically require a mother to choose between death of a child by starvation and death by diarrhea.  They say re-lactation as if it was like turning on a switch. Most women who have weaned young babies likely had problems lactating in the first place. How likely is it that she would be able to re-lactate in the midst of the stress, chaos, and misery of a calamity? The Department of Health says that the solution is to provide breastfeeding support, counselling, and breastfeeding-friendly setups where breastfeeding can be encouraged.  In a situation where the most basic of necessities such as water, shelter, and medical care have not even reached the victims, it does not appear that anyone is currently equipped to provide these conditions that would foster breastfeeding in a crisis situation. Wet-nursing or donated milk is the next alternative presented. On wet-nursing, I do wonder if that is really a safe option, since it is possible to also contract disease from tainted breast milk. Again, in a calamity situation, who has the time and resources to check for infectious diseases when looking for a wet nurse?  On donated milk, I concede that this is probably the most viable option, but given the sheer number of people affected, I do not think that it is a sustainable source of nutrition for all the babies affected (given that several hundred thousand homes were affected). Babies need constant nutrition, and while donated milk may augment at the start, is it really sustainable to provide for the nutritional needs of all the victims in the coming days before they are moved to a safe and clean environment? 

And so, I think, banning pre-mix formula donations is a case of letting the principle of promoting breastfeeding defeat the principle of saving as many lives as possible.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics concedes that pre-mixed formula is the last alternative when the other options are not feasible.  Our government, however, has taken the firm stance against formula and will refuse donations of pre-mixed formula.  Incidentally, pre-mixed is not readily available in the Philippines, but I’m sure it can be procured from other countries or even by local formula manufacturers if only it were allowed.

– S. T.

 

After receiving this email, I logged on to my computer to find several sources reiterating what the author had said. According to Gulf News,

Government and private hospitals in Manila called on nursing mothers nationwide to donate milk for babies in typhoon devastated central Philippines… Explaining the aim of the campaign, (Dr. Jessica Anne Dumalag of Manila’s Philippine General Hospital’s Human Milk Bank) said, “Milk from lactating mothers is preferred over formula milk, which is basically processed cow’s milk.”

The department of health which has been promoting breast feeding has a policy to prohibit the donation of formula milk for babies in temporary shelters, during a calamity….“Children are more exposed to allergy when they consume formula milk. We are also not sure if the water used to prepare formula milk is clean (that is why it is not recommended),” said Dumalag….Government and private hospitals including private organisations were organised to accept donations of human milk. Milk donations will be pasteurised, frozen, and kept in insulated containers before they are sent to evacuation centres in central Philippines, Dumalag said.

 

Concerns over water and sterile preparation of bottle feeds during disaster situations are valid and necessary. Several years ago, we had a lengthy debate here on FFF about this very topic; I’m well aware that if relactation or wet nursing is a possibility, it is without a doubt the safest option in natural disaster settings. Bacteria-filled water, poor sanitation, and lack of resources make formula feeding a deadly proposition; when formula feeding is seen to be “encouraged” in an at-risk population, lactation may be interrupted which can have long-term consequences (i.e., the family would then need formula on an ongoing basis, which could prove difficult if money or resources were an issue). I’m not disputing this, nor am I ignoring the fact that formula marketing in the Philippines is a hot button issue at the moment, and that breastfeeding promotion is in overdrive for reasons that I can’t fully comprehend, as a privileged Western woman.

But that’s not what this is about.

A policy that forbids powdered formula donations and encourages breastmilk donations is simply replacing one easily contaminated substance with another. Donated breastmilk – and this includes breastmilk procured by breastfeeding-related Facebook pages, speaking of privileged Western women – requires careful packaging, transport and refrigeration, not to mention screening for HIV and hepatitis B (the Philippines still has a low rate of HIV infection, but it’s rapidly increasing – TIME reports that every 3 hours a new case is now being diagnosed). There are still the same risks involved with sterilizing bottles, regardless of what’s filling them; nowhere in these news reports are people discussing the importance of cup feeding, for example – something that can significantly cut the chance of bacterial contamination.

There is, however, a substance that can be easily transported without refrigeration; that has a relatively stable and long shelf life; and which can be fed to babies in a perfectly sterile manner, at least in the short-term. That substance is ready-to-feed, pre-mixed formula, served in “nursette” bottles with pre-sterilized nipples (like these).

Granted, the cost of these supplies is rather high. But while I haven’t done the math, I’d venture to guess that the cost of procuring and safely distributing donor breastmilk would be just as prohibitive. And if people are ready and willing to donate RTF and pre-sterilized nipples, what would be the harm in allowing them to do so?

The answer is none. There would be no harm, except, perhaps, to the “cause” of breastfeeding promotion. That cause may be noble and important, but right now, it’s irrelevant. To put breastfeeding promotion ahead of feeding infants safely and in a timely manner is petty, short-sighted, and cruel. Think about it: would we discourage donations of processed, high-fat canned foods to disaster victims because of concerns over obesity, GMOs, or the environment? Or would we ensure that their immediate needs were met, and worry about preaching better health habits after the roads had been rebuilt and displaced families were settled into safe, warm homes?

The fact that Dr. Dumalog, quoted above, uses “allergies to formula” as a reason for forbidding RTF formula donations speaks to the irrationality of this policy. If a child is allergic to formula, there is also a chance s/he will react to something in a stranger’s milk. A breastfed baby may indeed react poorly to formula at first, but this is a case where the mom should receive plenty of assistance and encouragement to continue breastfeeding – not told to feed her baby via bottle with donated milk. With breastfeeding rates in the Philippines being what they are, it stands to reason that most of the babies without lactating mothers present are already formula fed – therefore they will probably do just fine with donated formula, even if it’s not the same brand. We’re talking about a little gas here, not a full-scale anaphylactic reaction.

Gulf News reports that “groups that promote breast-feeding in six hospitals and in several private clinics are part of the campaign.” A disaster situation is no place for “promotion” of anything but disaster relief. And the scariest thing about this is that the Filipino government isn’t alone in letting a hatred of formula get in the way of ration. The American Academy of Pediatrics also advocates for “screened human donor milk” before RTF (although they do, at least, acknowledge that this is an option). I have yet to see one study or agenda-free policy paper that actually looks at the viability of using donor milk as opposed to RTF formula with pre-sterilized nipples during disasters. If there is a logical reason behind these recommendations, I’d love to see it. All I can find are convoluted references to “breastfeeding being interrupted” (not an issue if we’re talking about babies who are already formula fed) and concerns about sterility and availability (absolutely valid, but just as valid in regards to donated milk, if not more so).

Governments must stop putting ideology above practicality. We are in desperate need of a neutral, informed, and rational voice to come up with better policies for infant feeding – policies that do not throw the cart before the horse, and end up running over its citizens in the process.

Can breastfeeding concerns be overcome with support? Depends on what “support” means

Guess what? Women are having trouble meeting their breastfeeding goals.

Contain your excitement.

Apparently, this is news to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and every major news outlet in North America. The study causing such shock and awe came out this Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers used self-reported data (i.e., interviews) from 532 first-time moms giving birth at a particular medical center (can’t find where, and due to geographical differences in levels of breastfeeding support and acceptance, I think this is vital information that at least one of the articles could have shared with us). The women were asked prenatally about their breastfeeding intentions and concerns, and then re-interviewed at 3, 7, 14, 30 and 60 days postpartum. According to Reuters:

During those interviews, women raised 49 unique breastfeeding concerns, a total of 4,179 times. The most common ones included general difficulty with infant feeding at the breast – such as an infant being fussy or refusing to breastfeed – nipple or breast pain and not producing enough milk.

 

Between 20 and 50 percent of mothers stopped breastfeeding altogether or added formula to the mix sooner than they had planned to do when they were pregnant.

 

Of the 354 women who were planning to exclusively breastfeed for at least two months, for example, 166 started giving their babies formula between one and two months.

 

And of 406 women who had planned to at least partially breastfeed for two months, 86 stopped before then.

Given these results, the study authors come to the conclusion:

Breastfeeding concerns are highly prevalent and associated with stopping breastfeeding. Priority should be given to developing strategies for lowering the overall occurrence of breastfeeding concerns and resolving, in particular, infant feeding and milk quantity concerns occurring within the first 14 days postpartum. (Source: Pediatrics)

 

The headlines, as usual, were both amusing and infuriating. “Nursing Troubles May Prompt New Moms to Give Up Sooner”. “Early breastfeeding challenges make women quit.” “Some moms discontinue breastfeeding within two months die to nursing difficulties”. And my personal favorite, “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

One might easily blame the media for their usual skewering of the science to make for a juicier headline, but one can hardly blame them when the experts giving interviews about this study say things like, “It’s a shame that those early problems can be the difference between a baby only getting breast milk for a few days and going on to have a positive breastfeeding relationship for a year or longer… If we are able to provide mothers with adequate support, 95 percent of all breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

So, what’s my issue? I think the study is fine. Sort of a no-brainer, considering they could’ve came to the same conclusion years ago had they just listened to moms instead of insisting we just needed more convincing of the benefits of breastfeeding, and we’d all magically lactate to the satisfaction of the World Health Organization. But the quote above (from Laurie Nommsen-Rivers, one of the study authors) makes me wonder if the results of the study are being taken in the wrong context.

The focus is on moms not getting enough support –  something that I 100% agree needs to be focused on. Like, yesterday. But where the experts quoted in these articles and I part ways is on what type of support is needed. This passage from NPR illustrates my point:

The researchers didn’t do physical exams of the moms and babies, so they don’t know what was happening for sure. But they speculate that some of the first-time mothers may have misread the babies’ cues, mistaking fussiness for hunger, for instance, or thinking the babies weren’t getting enough milk when they’re doing just fine…

 

Once again, the assumption is that women are wrong about their bodies, and about their babies. The study authors surmise that access to lactation consultants in the first week postpartum, after hospital discharge, will be the solution to many of these problems. Again, I absolutely agree that this is a great start. And yet – reading through the scores of FFF Friday stories, I have to wonder… is this really going to make a difference, given the current state of our breastfeeding culture? How many LCs have we all seen, cumulatively? How many were bullied or shamed by medical professionals? How many of us have been told our babies were fine, only to end up in the ER with a dehydrated infant? How many of us were told – by professional lactation consultants and pediatricians – that every woman can breastfeed, and that we should just keep on nursing and it will all work out?

Looking at this study, this is what I see: a ton of women are claiming to have pain, trouble latching, and concerns that their babies aren’t getting enough milk. NPR also reports that the group with the least amount of reported problems was comprised mostly of women under 30, and women of Hispanic origin. That begs for further research, doesn’t it? Could age and legitimate lactation failure be associated? What about race/ethnicity? Are there conditions more prevalent in older, non-Hispanic populations that are also associated with breastfeeding problems?

And this is what I also see: We have an opportunity – no, a responsibility- to look at the type of support these women are getting. Is it truly evidence-based? Or is it based on dogma; on the belief that “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible”? (By the way, I am super curious about the research backing up that claim.) Are the individuals giving the support truly listening to the mothers, examining them, considering the delicate balance of hormones necessary for lactation, or the effect of emotional or physical trauma around birth on a woman’s ability to withstand latching pain or her infant’s cries? Is there nuance? Are these mothers being seen, or are they being treated as uniform breasts, needing to be “handled” so that they can fulfill their duty of providing exclusive breastmilk for 6 months?

I’m not knocking a study that advocates for more support for moms. I simply want us to open up the discussion, rather than going in circles, with the same researchers and the same experts telling us the same things – if mothers only knew better. If they could only be taught to recognize their babies’ cues. If they would only listen to us. 

I think it’s time they listened to us, instead. Which brings me to what I’d really like to see from this study: a follow-up where they ask the women who “failed” to meet breastfeeding recommendations what they think would have helped them reach their goals. Because without that piece, I really don’t think we can get very far.

 

Bad medicine: Why the AAP’s new statement on breastfeeding & medication is puzzling

“The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risk of exposure to most therapeutic agents via human milk. Although most drugs and therapeutic agents do not pose a risk to the mother or nursing infant, careful consideration of the in- dividual risk/benefit ratio is necessary for certain agents, particularly those that are concentrated in human milk or result in exposures in the infant that may be clinically significant on the basis of relative infant dose or detect- able serum concentrations. Caution is also advised for drugs and agents with unproven benefits, with long half-lives that may lead to drug accumulation, or with known toxicity to the mother or infant. In addition, specific infants may be more vulnerable to adverse events because of immature organ function (eg, preterm infants or neonates) or underlying medical conditions.”

 

– Source: The Transfer of Drugs and Therapeutics Into Human Breast Milk: An Update on Selected Topics Hari Cheryl Sachs and COMMITTEE ON DRUGS. Pediatrics; originally published online August 26, 2013; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1985

The preceding is the conclusion to a new report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has given birth to a number of ecstatic headlines – “Most medications safe for breastfeeding moms”. “Medications of nursing mothers do not harm babies”. “Top Pediatrician’s Group Assures Most Drugs Safe While Breastfeeding”. Reading these, one might assume that a plethora of new research had been released, provoking the AAP to make a blanket statement about risk and benefits.

One should read the actual report before one gets too excited.

Other than the introduction and conclusion, which basically explain that studies are limited on most medications and how they affect a nursing infant, but that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks, the report reads like one giant warning.

Let’s start with antidepressants:

“Previous statements from the AAP categorized the effect of psychoactive drugs on the nursing infant as “unknown but may be of concern.” Although new data have been published since 2001, information on the long-term effects of these compounds is still limited. Most publications regarding psychoactive drugs describe the pharmacokinetics in small numbers of lactating women with short-term observational studies of their infants. In addition, interpretation of the effects on the infant from the small number of longer-term studies is confounded by prenatal treatment or exposure to multiple therapies. For these reasons, the long-term effect on the developing infant is still largely unknown…Because of the long half-life of some of these compounds and/or their metabolites, coupled with an infant’s immature hepatic and renal function, nursing infants may have measurable amounts of the drug or its metabolites in plasma and potentially in neural tissue. Infant plasma concentrations that exceed 10% of therapeutic maternal plasma concentrations have been reported for a number of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors…”

As stated in the first sentence of this section, the evidence hasn’t really changed from when the last AAP statement on drugs and human milk was released, circa 2001. But the conclusion sure has. In 2001, the authors advised that “(n)ursing mothers should be informed that if they take one of these drugs, the infant will be exposed to it. Because these drugs affect neurotransmitter function in the developing central nervous system, it may not be possible to predict long-term neurodevelopmental effects.” In 2013, the author states “Mothers who desire to breastfeed their infant(s) while taking these agents should be counseled about the benefits of breastfeeding as well as the potential risk that the infant may be exposed to clinically significant levels and that the long-term effects of this exposure are unknown.”(p. e799)

This is where I start getting nervous. The last thing I ever want to do is discourage someone who needs antidepressants or another lifesaving medication from breastfeeding – especially considering I personally chose to take the small risk and feed my newborn breastmilk while I was on Zoloft (one of the many SSRIs that are categorized in both reports as “Psychoactive Drugs With Infant Serum Concentrations Exceeding 10% of Maternal Plasma Concentrations”, meaning that the levels of the drug getting into a newborn via breastmilk are clinically significant and of potential concern for a growing neonate). These are the risk/benefit scenarios we often discuss here on FFF – decisions that parents need to make (and deserve to make), armed with solid information and free from paternalistic admonishments that don’t have real world meaning. But I don’t feel that the new AAP statement – or the way that the media is reporting it – is allowing for a truly informed decision.

Notice the emphasis of the newer AAP statement – the advice given is to counsel the mother on the benefits of breastfeeding first, and then inform her of the potential risks and unknowns of nursing on her medication. Anyone with a grade-school understanding of psychology can figure out what that would sound like. (“Breastfeeding is extremely important and will save your child from every ill imaginable! But I should warn you that if you choose to nurse while on Zoloft, we can’t confirm or deny that your baby may turn into a werewolf when he reaches puberty. Your choice!”)

Maybe I’m arguing semantics here, but why couldn’t they avoid the paternalism of both the 2001 and the 2013 statement and simply advise doctors to inform parents of the risks and benefits of both feeding options, as well as the risks of nursing on medications, in an accessible, understandable way? And then help them mitigate the risks, no matter what path they choose?

Moving on… painkillers. The AAP is now agreeing with what I freaked out about in Bottled Up – Vicodin and newly postpartum, breastfeeding women are not a match made in heaven. And before you post-C-section mamas beg for the Darvocet, that won’t fly, either. Turns out that infants whose mothers used these commonly prescribed drugs  for managing postpartum pain have popped up with cases of unexplained apnea, bradycardia, cyanosis, sedation, and hypotonia; one infant died from a Vicodin overdose after ingesting the drug through mother’s milk. But hey- you can take (moderate) doses of Tylenol and Advil to manage that post-surgical pain, so no worries.

Are you starting to see why “Medications of nursing moms do not harm babies” might not be the most accurate headline?

Ummm…. Herbal remedies! Those have to be okay, right? They’re natural, after all!

Not so fast, sugar.

“Despite the frequent use of herbal products in breastfeeding women (up to 43% of lactating mothers in a 2004 survey), reliable information on the safety of many herbal products is lacking…The use of several herbal products may be harmful, including kava and yohimbe. For example, the FDA has issued a warning that links kava supplementation to severe liver damage. Breastfeeding mothers should not use yohimbe because of reports of associated fatalities in children…Safety data are lacking for many herbs commonly used during breastfeeding, such as chamomile,black cohosh, blue cohosh, chastetree, echina- cea, ginseng, gingko, Hypericum (St John’s wort), and valerian. Adverse events have been reported in both breastfeeding infants and mothers. For example, St John’s wort may cause colic, drowsiness, or lethargy in the breastfed infant…Prolonged use of fenugreek may require monitoring of coagulation status and serum glucose concentrations. For these reasons, these aforementioned herbal products are not recommended for use by nursing women.”

Wait. It gets worse. You know those galactagogues you were prescribed to increase your milk supply? Flush them down the toilet, says the AAP. The safety of Domperidone, for example, “has not been established.”

“The FDA issued a warning in June 2004 regarding use of domperidone in breast- feeding women because of safety concerns based on published reports of arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, and sudden death associated with intravenous therapy. Furthermore, treatment with oral domperidone is associated with QT prolongation in children and infants.”

The authors aren’t overly enthusiastic about other galactagogues, either, and instead encourage moms struggling with supply to “use non-pharmacologic measures to increase milk supply, such as ensuring proper technique, using massage therapy, increasing the frequency of milk expression, prolonging the duration of pumping, and maximizing emotional support.”

I’ve read the report 10 times now, trying to see where they could possibly come to the conclusion that this is a game changer; that it is at all newsworthy; that this is what counts as progress. To my untrained eye, it appears to be little more than a re-framing of old information to fit in better with the “breast is best at all costs” mantra, rather than a landmark “update” of an antiquated policy paper. Based on this report, how are pediatricians supposed to tell patients, in good conscience, that there is adequate evidence that it’s safe to breastfeed on “nearly all” medications?

For most of the meds in question, it probably is safe- similarly to how the risks of infant formula are scary on paper and far less daunting in real life, I honestly believe that we’d be seeing a lot of seriously messed-up kids if your absolute risk of nursing while on antidepressants was high. Just like many of us have made carefully weighed decisions to formula feed, feeling the weight of misery in one hand and balancing that with an increased risk of ear infections in the other, so shall we handle questions of breastfeeding and medications. The problem is not with moms making choices based on the facts we have- the problem is when respected, policy-creating organizations create false narratives that render us unable to make those choices in a truly informed way.

The report leans heavily on the work of Thomas Hale and LactMed, fantastic resources for research on these issues. I’m grateful there are people dedicated to focusing on this research – research that matters so much more than yet another associative study attempting to show that breastfed babies are smarter than formula fed ones. We desperately need more research on how commonly prescribed medications affect breastfeeding infants, not so that we can “forbid” women from breastfeeding, but so that we can help them reach their breastfeeding goals. This might mean timing medications so that they are mostly metabolized prior to nursing, or pumping for some feeds, or even -god forbid- using a little formula or donor milk for the feeds that have a higher amount of the drug coming through milk (these are tough things to figure out, sometimes, as people metabolize differently, as do babies, but it’s a good goal to have on the horizon). Maybe it means finding better medications. Or it might just mean allowing parents to ponder their own risk/benefit scenarios and respecting their decisions, whatever those may be.

Before we can do that, though, someone has to remind the AAP that they are doctors first, breastfeeding advocates second. Let the science speak, not the zealotry, and maybe we can start helping parents make truly “informed” choices.

 

Formula feeding education, or lack thereof

Reading through my Google alerts, I almost squealed with excitement when I saw a link entitled “Health Tip: Preparing Baby Formula” from none other than U.S. News and World Report. A major news outlet! Formula feeding education! Squee!

Well, turns out the article was less “squee” and more “eh”.

According to the esteemed publication, the formula-related health tip that was so vital that it necessitated being “called out” (publishing world lingo for highlighting a fact or quote) was the following:

Wash Your Hands.

The rest of the tips have to do with general hygiene- cleaning surfaces, sterilizing bottles, etc. I’m probably being unnecessarily snarky, because this is important information; it is important to keep things as clean and sterile as possible when making up an infant’s bottle. They also throw in one useful tip about keeping boiled water covered while cooling (great advice). But most of this is certainly not new information, and in many ways, I think it’s a waste of newsprint.

Why? First, I expect most parents know they are supposed to wash their hands and clean their bottles. What they may not know is why. There is no mention of the risk of bacterial infection here, so it just comes of sounding like vague, somewhat stodgy advice, like something your mother-in-law tells you in that tone. (You know the one.) The kind of advice that gets filed in the “I know I should do it, but come on, what’s the harm” portion of your conscience, alongside “floss twice a day” and “never jaywalk” (unless you are in Los Angeles. Then you probably take the jaywalking thing seriously, as the LAPD will ticket your ass for crossing where you shouldn’t). I think an acknowledgement that these precautions will help you avoid potentially deadly bacterial infections would make the advice seem a tad more topical.

But also, this is standard food prep protocol. There are other intricacies to formula feeding that may not be as intuitive- safety precautions like mixing the proper amounts of water to formula; not diluting the formula; using the right type of water; discarding formula after specific amounts of time; opting for ready-to-feed for newborns. Or what about other tips which might help avoid other formula-related health problems? Like a run down of the different types of formulas so that parents can choose the right type for their babies. Advice for understanding hunger cues. A bit of education on growth spurts; what’s normal when it comes to formula-fed babies and spit-up and elimination (both pee and poop); a quick description of how to feed a baby holding the bottle at a good angle?

I get that this was merely a half-column filler, not an 800-word feature. I understand that U.S. News & World Report isn’t in the business of imparting feeding advice to parents (and in fact, the article in question was syndicated, from Health Day) . And I seriously do appreciate the effort to give a bit of valuable info to formula feeding parents. Yet, I can’t help but wish that this half-column was put to better use. A short paragraph on when (and just as importantly, why) formula should be discarded would have been infinitely more interesting and useful.

There are a few reasons why formula feeding education is as hard to come by as a good house under half a million in the greater Los Angeles area (I’m bitter about real estate at the moment). Many people think it’s unnecessary; formula feeding is seen as the “easy way out”, and assumed to be as simple as scoop and shake. Some breastfeeding advocates believe that prenatal formula education/preparation is counterproductive to breastfeeding promotion – the theory being that if you discuss it, it will be taken as an endorsement, when formula should only be used in an all-else-has-failed scenario. (The World Health Organization’s “WHO Code” basically forbids health workers from even uttering the words “infant formula” until it becomes clear that there is no other option.)

What is puzzling to me about this situation is that breastfeeding, while definitely a lost art in our bottle-heavy society, does have an intuitive aspect to it. Or at least it is portrayed that way – something so natural, so instinctual, shouldn’t require training. Assistance, yes. Support, most definitely. Protection, you bet your bottom dollar. But instruction/education? That seems rather – well, quite literally, counterintuitive.

Formula feeding, on the other hand, is something which has always been a man-made, lab created, medically-approved (at least up until recent events) form of infant feeding. It does require instruction; you don’t see our primate cousins giving birth and popping open a can of Similac (although I am quite sure they could be trained to do so, considering how smart they are. I’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Scared the bejesus out of me). Yet parents leave their prenatal classes and hospital stays with plenty of info on birthing and baby care and breastfeeding, but little to no instruction on how to make a damn bottle.

The vast majority of babies will have some formula in their first year. Heck, by the time they are 6 months old, it’s a safe bet to assume most of them are partially, if not exclusively, formula fed. We can’t sell infant feeding as the number one predictor of infant health and development and simultaneously ignore the primary way our nation’s babies are being fed.  It’s bogus, and irresponsible.

This is not to imply that parents are putting their babies in dire jeopardy because they leave a bottle out too long, or forget to scrub their hands like Lady MacBeth before mixing formula. Heck, I committed almost every formula feeding sin and my kids are pretty normal. (Except for Fearlette’s suspicious fear of police helicopters, but I blame that on her past life.) But until we ensure that parents are properly educated on formula feeding – something that could be done with one quality, AAP-endorsed pamphlet, or a few minutes of discussion in a hospital baby care class – we can’t possibly get a clear idea of the real risks of formula feeding (I bet we’d see an even smaller difference in breastfed versus formula fed if all formula feeding parents were doing it correctly), or feel confident that all of our babies are getting the best version of whatever feeding method their parents have chosen.

For now, I’d suggest checking out Bottle Babies – a great non-profit organization run by some friends of mine. They’ve put together some excellent, research-based information on a myriad of bottle-related issues. Or feel free to click on the link to the FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide. And I hate to say it, but for the moment, the formula companies are probably the best resource for formula feeding parents. At least they give a crap about their customer base, even if this is rooted in a desire for customer loyalty and a fear of litigation.

And, ya know, remember to wash your hands.

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