City of Ottawa Public Health Unit’s “Informed Consent” webpage: A case study in (un)informed consent

An anonymous FFF reader has allowed me to publish the following letter, which she sent to her local Public Health unit in Ottawa. I visited the site that caused her so much consternation, and I was equally incensed. Please click here to see what she and I are talking about:

Make an informed decision about feeding your baby

My thoughts on the Ottawa website follow this letter. I’d also encourage you to check out the letter sent by the blogger at Awaiting Juno. And, if you’re feeling inspired to do so and happen to be a citizen of Ottawa (or even if you just feel like giving them your opinion), feel free to write your own letter and send it to healthsante@ottawa.ca.

***

Dear City of Ottawa Public Health Unit,

I discovered the following webpage on Informed Consent and was utterly dismayed at what I had read.

I had my daughter seven years ago and am hoping to have another child within the next two years. When I was pregnant with her I knew I was going to breastfeed her. I felt that formula was vastly inferior. Unfortunately having breast hypoplasia (something that none of the literature of had prepared me for), made exclusive breastfeeding an impossibility. My daughter went from losing weight on my breasts alone (I did have a postpartum nurse who was very concerned about my breasts due to their shape and spacing, but I dismissed it as an unsupportive nurse, not as her giving me relevant information on my situation), to thriving on formula.

That page isn’t giving informed consent, it is scaring women into breastfeeding by bringing up scary words like “obesity”, “SIDS” and “Cancer”, without mentioning any potential  drawbacks for breastfeeding (including not being able to take certain medication and that it can be a physically and emotionally draining experience for some) and without making any positives about formula. It also doesn’t mention that formula prepared properly is a valid feeding method and choosing it doesn’t mean that a child will end up toothless, obese, diagnosed with cancer, or dead. From what I have seen about the research the main risks are a higher rate of gastrointestinal viruses and ear infections (which my daughter did get, when she was 5 and a half years old). For a woman who might be already sad that breastfeeding isn’t working out with them, such phrasing of information without perspective or actual risk amounts could contribute to postpartum depression. I should know- seeing that kind of information online (it exists all over the internet) after switching to formula was a contributing factor to my own depression.

You mention on the first page that the Baby Friendly designation includes supporting women’s feeding choices, but I do not see how that supports a formula feeding woman at all and could increase the stigma and isolation about using a product that is in fact very safe to use in our city.

I encourage you to take that “Informed Consent” page down and rework it so that it does not demonize formula. The benefits of breastfeeding in all honestly should be able to stand on its own without resorting to demonizing formula. Furthermore, I am more than willing to help with any rewording to help formula feeding moms feel more supported in their choice.

As a taxpayer, mother and a woman who felt intense guilt for 2 years for using a product that nourished my daughter where I couldn’t (I also have the perspective that she is a very healthy, active 7 year old), I urge you to reconsider your approach.

Yours truly,

A.

 ***

Before I return to my Pad See-Ew, which is currently getting cold (yet another reason to be annoyed at the city of Ottawa – they are ruining my damn dinner), I want to add a few of my own thoughts to Anonymous’s letter.

The document on the Ottawa Dept. of Health website is coercive and factually inaccurate, starting with the first sentence. They state:

Deciding how you are going to feed your baby is one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent.

What the “most important decisions” you’ll make as a parent are is entirely subjective.

Next, they state:

Making an informed decision means you have all of the information you need to help you decide what is best for your family.

Yep. Exactly. You deserve accurate, dispassionate information so that YOU can decide what is best for YOUR family. This document does the polar opposite. It confuses correlation and causation (I only see two uses of the important qualifier “may” in the lists of benefits and risks – for example, they claim that breastfeeding “helps to protect against cancer of the breast and ovary.” It would be accurate to say that breastfeeding “may help to protect…” or “has been associated with a lower risk of…”, but the way they pronounce this benefit makes it sound proven without a doubt. This is simply not true); it does not mention any of the potential downsides of breastfeeding, nor the benefits of formula feeding (even if they’d just said “the ability to feed your child when breastfeeding isn’t working or there isn’t a mom in the picture”, it would have sufficed); and most importantly, it does not leave the reader with any choice other than to breastfeed, or feel like an inadequate, terrible human being. And before someone starts misquoting Eleanor Roosevelt to me, let me stop you: yes, people CAN make you feel guilty without your consent. Or if you can’t agree with me on that, let’s forget about guilt – how about embarrassed or judged? Can people make you feel that way without your consent? And what if you’re not in any emotional place to give that consent? Like when you are a hormonal pregnant or newly postpartum parent, and it’s your city government posting a bunch of fear-inducing drivel under the headline “the benefits or breastfeeding for the baby, mother, family and the community”? How about then?

The document’s piece de resistance is this half-assed suggestion at the bottom of the page:

If you have made the informed decision to formula feed and need information on how to prepare it safely, please visit Ottawa Public Health’s Food safety page.

Ah, I see. So if you’ve made a decision to do something that causes nothing but inconvenience, pain, and suffering for you and your child (and your community- can’t forfet your community!) based on this “information”, you should just go to a different department, because we’re freaking OVER you. Notice that when the link for more information on breastfeeding follows this taxonomy:

Residents>>Public health>>Pregnancy and babies>>Healthy baby and parenting>>Feeding your baby>>Breastfeeding

There is NOTHING about formula in this “Feeding your baby” section. Instead, formula feeding monsters, er, mothers are directed to:

Residents>>Public health>>Food safety and inspections>>Baby Formula

Apparently, healthy babies and parenting only has to do with breastfeeding. Formula feeding is on par with selling hot dogs at softball games.

I don’t even know what to say, except to all the soon-to-be moms and currently formula-feeding or combo-feeding mothers in Ottawa, I am so, so sorry. Your city health department sucks donkey balls. And if I were you, I’d start the angry tweets and emails right. Freaking. NOW.

Twitter: @ottawacity

Email: healthsante@ottawa.ca

 

 

The ads on the bus go bad, bad, bad – a response to the Calgary Breastfeeding Matters Group campaign

“Children of parents who have diabetes have higher risk of diabetes themselves. Reproduce responsibly. Learn more.”

“Hispanic and Black children have higher risk of diabetes. Race matters. Learn more.”

“Children who are poor have higher risk of diabetes. Money matters. Learn more.”

 

If any of the above statements were posted on the walls of a bus, there would be an intense backlash, and rightfully so. Not only do these messages contribute to the shaming of people with diabetes – a condition that, according the American Diabetes Association, is primarily due to genetic predisposition – they are also offensive, misleading, and would fit quite well into a sci-fi thriller about eugenics. True, these factors are associated with higher rates of diabetes, but the story is far more complex than these slogans suggest, and to imply otherwise is nothing short of irresponsible.

Yet, a similar advertisement will be posted on public buses in Canada, suggesting that mothers of children who develop diabetes may be to blame for their children’s condition, due to their infant feeding choices (or lack thereof).

Ad from the Calgary Breastfeeding Matters Group (CBMG.ca)

Ad from the Calgary Breastfeeding Matters Group (CBMG.ca)

The slogan Babies who aren’t breastfed have higher risk of diabetes, is problematic. The omission of the word “may” (“Babies who aren’t breastfed may have higher risk…) implies that ALL babies whose mothers do not (or cannot) provide mother’s milk are doomed to a higher risk of diabetes.

Yet, the recent meta synthesis study by the World Health Organization (1) which examined 314 studies from 43 countries, reported that while breastfeeding may have protective effect for type -2 diabetes among adolescents, “Generalization from these findings is restricted by the small number of studies and the presence of significant heterogeneity among them” (p. 12). Moreover, there is no evidence to support that breastfeeding is protective against Type 1 diabetes, which is more common in the pediatric population (2).

To understand how this ad is misleading, it’s important to understand that diabetes is not one disease, but actually a group of diseases marked by high levels of blood glucose resulting from defects in insulin production, insulin action, or both. Saying blanket statements about diabetes is like saying “Brittany S sucks”. Who? Brittany Spears? Brittany Snow? Brittany S. Pears from Glee? Brittany spaniels? Same name, but very different entities. The causes of the various types of diabetes also vary. Although there are 3 main types of diabetes (Type 1, Type 2, and Gestational), people can get diabetes as a result of other conditions, like cystic fibrosis, organ transplantation, or having HIV/AIDS.

Type 2 diabetes, formerly known as non-insulin dependent diabetes or adult onset diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes across the general population. It is most often associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, previous history of gestational diabetes, physical inactivity, and certain ethnicities, and can typically be managed via weight control, dietary changes, and exercise. It has come to be viewed in society as a disease of “fault”; another spoke in the wheel of the obesogenic machine that is currently speeding through our society like a shiny, red Corvette, crushing all nuance and holistic scope in its path.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, unrelated to weight or lifestyle factors. This is important to distinguish because children with Type 1 and their parents often get unjustly blamed for the condition (imagine how it must feel, on top of worrying about your chid’s blood sugar levels getting deathly high or low, to contend with people asking if you fed him or her nothing but junk food?) While there is some data suggesting the existence of environmental, viral, or physiological “triggers” for Type 1 diabetes, current research has not shown that it can be prevented (3) by any means, including maternal feeding.

Furthermore, to date, no studies have shown direct correlation between maternal feeding and the development of either form of diabetes, as this campaign would suggest. There is some evidence that children who were breastfed have a lower incidence of developing Type 1 diabetes [4] but the data are merely associative, as there are multiple confounding factors known to develop conditions for the disease. For example, the data coming from the burgeoning field of epigenetics have demonstrated a fairly robust association between allostatic load, or stress, in pregnancy, and higher risk for diabetes, coronary and ischemic disease. [5]

The Babies who aren’t breastfed have higher risk of diabetes advert, sponsored by the Calgary Breastfeeding Matters Group (CBMG), is the fifth in a series of pro-breastfeeding posters. The first four successfully inform and empower public awareness regarding breastfeeding; promoting the message that breastfeeding in public is normal with witty slogans and amusing imagery. This makes the current diabetes-themed poster all the more troubling–with its image of a bottle marked with the word “insulin” next to a foreboding hypodermic needle. To promote the scientifically inaccurate message with hyperbolic imagery misleads the general public, and burdens the parents and children affected by both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes with unnecessary doubt and concern.

The CBMG may have expected backlash as its website offers a “Resource Sheet” to accompany the advertisement. They link to three different sources of data to back up their claim, with the introductory proclamation that “Recent 2013 research states that breastfeeding as a preventative measure against Type I and Type II diabetes is Level III Evidence”. The first link, to a Nordic systematic literature review, does confirm that the evidence supporting longer-term breastfeeding as a preventative measure (as opposed to “any” breastfeeding) is “Level III evidence”, indeed. What the CBMG fails to mention is that “Level III evidence” is defined as “limited-suggestive”. [6] (To be fair, the study does qualify the evidence for “any” breastfeeding being potentially protective as Level 2 – “probable” – based on studies of varying quality and methodologies.)The other two citations – another review and a seminar about epigenetics [7] [8] – both contain numerous caveats about their findings; neither offers anything close to conclusive evidence that breastfeeding is protective against diabetes – evidence that is hardly worth screaming from the rooftops. Or posting on the wall of a bus.

Without going into a lengthy discussion on the limitations of using two reviews and a lecture as the basis of an emotive advertising campaign, It should suffice to say that infant feeding has not been adopted as a significant reductive factor worthy of promoting to the general public by the American Diabetes Association, nor the Canadian Diabetes Association, expert authorities on this condition (although both of these sources do discuss the research into the breastfeeding-diabetes connection on their websites). In fact, diabetes expert Dr. David Lau  has already spoken against about the campaign, telling the Calgary Herald that the studies used to support the campaign “were essentially surveys…(and) he called any ad based on current, formal research to be an ‘extrapolation’.”

The CBMG “Resource Sheet” also contains a “Q and A”:

So, I breastfed my baby but she still got diabetes!  Is that my fault?

  • There are many risk factors which influence chronic diseases, not breastfeeding is only one of these risk factors.
  • When you have not realized your breastfeeding goals, you may inappropriately blame yourself, when it is the lack of information and support which is the real culprit
  • Let go of guilt. Use that energy to enjoy and celebrate your child and the accomplishments you have made.

This ad is cruel! It makes women who did not breastfeed feel guilty.

 

  • This argument by the public and health professionals takes the responsibility away from those supporting mothers who have not provided the information and support to help her reach her breastfeeding goals. 

  • Information about the health risks of formula do not come from formula companies, but it is very important for moms-to-be to realize there are risks. This needs to be delivered along with breastfeeding support resources.

(Source: CBMG.ca)

In other words, if your baby was breastfed and still got diabetes, there’s a potential that other factors may be at play- but more likely, you didn’t meet your breastfeeding goals. Don’t feel guilty, though – you were probably booby trapped! It’s not your fault you gave your baby diabetes. Although it kind of is.

This ad, well intention as it may be, will quite possibly inflict unnecessary shame and guilt on the parents of children with diabetes; perpetuate the confusion between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; and stigmatize women into breastfeeding rather than encouraging them to do so in a positive, constructive way. It would serve CBMG to remove this ad from their otherwise positive breastfeeding promotion campaign. Otherwise, they risk ruining an empowering, powerful campaign with the usual polarizing, negative, and historically ineffective tactics that have perpetuated the “bottle/breast” wars and kept parents from the important work of keeping themselves, and their babies, happy and healthy.

This post was a collaborative effort between Suzanne Barston (the FFF) and Walker Karraa, MFA, MA, with assistance from Polly Palumbo, PhD,  Sarah Lawrence, PharmD, MA,  Teri Noto, and Kristin Cornish, and several others who wish to remain anonymous for professional reasons. 

Citations

[1] Word Health Organization. 2013. Long-term effects of breastfeeding: A systematic review.

[2] University of Rochester Health Encyclopedia, date unknown. Type 1 Diabetes in Children.

[3] American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013.  Healthy Children.org – Diabetes Mellitus.

[4] American Diabetes Association, date unknown. Genetics of Diabetes.

[5] Barker DJ, Winter PD, Osmond C, Margetts B, Simmonds SJ (1989) Weight in infancy and death from ischaemic heart disease. Lancet 2:577-580.

Barker DJP, Bull AR, Osmond C, Simmonds SJ (1990) Fetal and placental size and risk of hypertension in adult life. BMJ 301:259-262

Barker DJP (1995) Fetal origins of coronary heart disease. BMJ 311:171-174.

Barker DJP, Osmond C, Forsén T, Kajantie E, Eriksson JG (2005) Trajectories of growth among children who later have coronary events. N Engl J Med 353:1802-1809.

[6] Hörnell A,et al. Breastfeeding, introduction of other foods and effects on health: a systematic literature review for the 5th Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. Food Nutr Res. 2013; 57: 10.3402

[7] Nolan CJ, Damm P, Prenkiki M.Type 2 diabetes across generations:from pathophysiology to prevention and management. Lancet. 2011 Jul 9;378(9786):169-81.

[8] Patelarou E, et al. Current evidence on the associations of breastfeeding, infant formula, and cow’s milk introduction with type 1 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2012 Sep;70(9):509-19]


 

 

 

A slightly curmudgeonly rant about the drama over Save the Children’s “Superfood for Babies” campaign

The problem with writing a post which criticizes an organization which strives to help starving kids is that it makes you feel like the Grinch. Or Gargamel. I feel like I should be stroking an acrimonious cat and arching a pair of overgrown eyebrows inward.

Save the Children does a lot of wonderful things for children in dire straits, and I don’t want to come down on them too hard. And in many respects, I applaud their recently announced “Superfood for Babies” initiative. I do believe that breastfeeding is a hugely important part of improving childhood mortality in resource-poor nations, and the report supporting the program offers some excellent perspective on the challenges of raising exclusive breastfeeding rates in these areas.

In public health circles, there’s a lot of discussion on messaging – how to make PSAs culturally appropriate, sensitive, and effective. The thing is, this doesn’t only hold true for at-risk groups – it also applies to the middle-class factions of western nations. It’s just as ineffective (and inappropriate) to try and graft a message addressed to people living in tribal societies with problematic water sources onto a secretary in suburban Iowa as it would be to do the opposite. Yet, this is what happens – repeatedly – in our international discussions of breastfeeding. (Incidentally, this is at the root of my beef with Unicef and WHO, and why I feel it’s necessary to amend the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative set forth by those organizations to be more culturally appropriate to developed, Western societies.)

This brings us to my scroogey analysis of the “Superfood for Babies” campaign.  I would encourage everyone to read the literature – it offers some truly excellent insight into the specific issues at play in a variety of developing nations, and makes it clear (whether or not it intends to) that formula is not the only barrier to encouraging exclusive breastfeeding. In some cultures, there are beliefs that breastfeeding for the first few days of a babies life is detrimental; in others, women feel pressured to produce as many babies as possible, thus making the fertility-restricting nature of breastfeeding a downside; and in others, it’s not formula which is used as a supplement but raw animal milks or concoctions of grains.

Save the Children (STC) did a lot right with this report. They addressed the need for social change; advised that governments subsidize breastfeeding women so that those in unstructured agricultural jobs (which don’t exactly come with a 401k or paid maternity leave) don’t need to return to work immediately, and have to choose between making a living and feeding their babies; and they press for better education and involvement from medical workers and midwives. I think their motives were great, and they did their homework.

Unfortunately, in their excitement, they lost perspective in three key areas…

1. They were (intentionally or unintentionally) vague about the research

Look, I would never argue that breastfeeding isn’t the best choice – by far – for babies in places where food is scarce, infection and disease runs rampant, medical care and antibiotics are severely limited, and the water source is questionable. Formula feeding is dangerous in these settings. But since breastfeeding advocates and orgs like WHO have made breastfeeding a global issue, we have a responsibility to be honest about what our body of research actually says. There are numerous instances in the STC report where claims are simply not held up by their citations. For example, this quote, on page vii of the report’s introduction:

It is not only through the ‘power of the first hour’ that breastfeeding is beneficial. If an infant is fed only breast milk for the first six months they are protected against major childhood diseases. A child who is not breastfed is 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die from diarrhoea[2]. Around one in eight of the young lives lost each year could be prevented through breastfeeding,[3] making it the most effective of all ways to prevent the diseases and malnutrition that can cause child deaths[4].

Let’s take a closer look at the citations. The first one, #2, is from a UNICEF report on diarrhea and pneumonia- not a study, but a report. So it took a bit of digging to see exactly where they were getting their data from. I *think* this figure comes from a table attributed to a Lancet piece, which “estimated”  that “Suboptimum breastfeeding was… responsible for 1·4 million child deaths and 44 million disability-adjusted life years”. I couldn’t get the full study on this one, but again – it was an estimate, most likely based on other studies – not hard data.

Citation #4 is the one that’s bothersome, however (#3 is just a footnote with the definition of “exclusive breastfeeding”). The sentence “making it the most effective of all ways to prevent the diseases and malnutrition that can cause child deaths” is most likely read as “breastfeeding is the most effective way to prevent child death”. That’s quite emotive. The citation leads you to a Lancet paper on child survival, which does have some dramatic data and charts regarding the interventions which would most reduce infant mortality in the developing world. Breastfeeding is shown to offer the most dramatic reduction in risk- but there’s one important point to consider: while this report focuses on death in children ages 0-5, the majority of these deaths occur in the first few months of life. Exclusive breastfeeding, as opposed to mixed feeding or exclusive feeding of substitutes including goat or buffalo milk, paps, or formula (important to note that in many of the countries STC is concerned about, traditions include feeding neonates animal milks or solids within hours of birth – so I think it’s arguable that the issue here is the risk of giving a baby anything but breastmilk via the breast, rather than breastfeeding being the “magic bullet” the report dubs it to be. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t see consistently poor outcomes in mixed-fed kids, as a “magical” substance would compensate) is going to reduce the risk of infections that cause death in very young babies. In other words – if the most deaths are in newborns, and breastfeeding saves newborns more than any other interventions like vaccines, clean water, etc – then there will be a disproportionate representation of “babies saved by breastmilk” in the results. This is not to say that breastfeeding isn’t an incredibly worthwhile and effective solution to reduce infant mortality, but it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that breastfeeding alone will be the most effective intervention for ALL childhood deaths, which is exactly what the STC report does.

2. They didn’t consider the societal implications of their recommendations, beyond the scope of infant health

I was taking notes as I read the STC report, and my heading for the section which included this quote was “OMGOMGOMG”:

Many women are not free to make their own decisions about whether they will breastfeed, or for how long. In Pakistan, a Save the Children survey revealed that only 44% of mothers considered themselves the prime decision-maker over how their children were fed. Instead it is often husbands or mothers-in-law who decide….

 

….To overcome harmful practices and tackle breastfeeding taboos, developing country governments must fund projects that focus on changing the power and gender dynamics in the community to empower young women to make their own decisions.

Changing the power and gender dynamics sounds like a fantastic idea, and I would support any program that attempted to do this. But STC has to realize that “empower(ing) young women (in developing countries) to make their own decisions is a complex and uphill battle that extends far beyond infant feeding. I fear that by placing an emphasis on UNICEF-lauded solutions like warning labels on formula cans/making formula prescription-only, and on educating fathers/elders on the importance of breastfeeding using the current overzealous and often misleading messages, in these countries – places where, all too often, females are already considered “property” and subjected to any manner of injustices – it will create an atmosphere where women who are physically unable to breastfeed will be ostracized, shamed, or penalized. I agree that we need to empower women, but I think that we also need to be verrrry careful about presenting “suboptimal breastfeeding” as a risky behavior in certain cultures.

In another section, the authors report that breastfeeding rates have gone up in Malawai despite poor legislation on maternity leave, breastfeeding rights, etc. – that these improvements are based solely on strict implementation of WHO Code. I’d like to be reassured that as women are being given no option other than breastfeeding without any of the protections which would make EBF feasible while working, this isn’t having a deleterious effect on their lives. It’s wonderful that breastfeeding rates are up, but what about correlating rates of employment, poverty, and maternal health?

3. They failed to differentiate between resource poor and resource rich countries

I’ve seen a wide range of opinions on the STC program online in the past few days. Most of the drama is over British media reports which mention putting large warning labels on all formula tins – not just the ones going to resource-poor countries. Some feel that these labels will cause unnecessary upset in the West; others argue that when it comes to saving starving/sick third-world babies, privileged mommy pundits should STFU. And others keep insisting that the STC report was misrepresented, and that the labeling stuff was a minor part of the larger plan and shouldn’t be harped on.

All of these arguments are valid, and yet all are missing the nuance necessary to have a productive conversation. We need to realize that not breastfeeding has quite different implications in certain parts of the world. We also need to acknowledge that a woman’s rights are important no matter how much money she has or where she lives, and that we all have a right to stand up for what we believe – it’s rather useless to play the “eat your dinner because children are starving in Africa” game, and rather un-PC as well.

But STC also needs to take responsibility, here. The fact is that the report does not really differentiate between resource-poor and resource-rich countries when it is discussing WHO Code and formula marketing.  For example, this passage on p. 45 describes laws which STC wants implemented worldwide:

Breast-milk substitute companies should adopt and implement a business code of conduct regarding their engagement with governments in relation to breast-milk substitutes legislation. Companies should include a public register on their website that outlines their membership of national or regional industry bodies or associations, any meetings where the WHO Code or breastfeeding is discussed, and details of any public affairs or public relations companies they have hired, alongside the nature of this work… Any associations (such as nutrition associations or working mothers’ associations) that receive funding from infant formula companies should be required to declare it publicly. In addition to this information being made publicly available on the websites of individual companies, the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers should publish a consolidated record of this information, updated on a quarterly basis.

Personally, I think the money spent on a “governing association” in order to police this policy would be better spent on funding literacy programs to help parents read the labels we’re arguing about. Some of these countries have literacy rates of like 30% – which makes me wonder exactly who the labels are geared to, if not the Westerners for whom formula feeding is far, far less of a risky endeavor.

Don’t mistake me – the evidence given in this report about the shady practices of formula co’s is alarming. There needs to be something done about unethical marketing practices in parts of the world where information is limited, education is a true privilege, and options are a joke. Yet, in the STC report, there is ample (and quite good) evidence that the unethical efforts of formula companies are only one slice of a thick-crust, Chicago-style pizza. There’s a lot of gooey, barely distinguishable elements which all combine to make a rather heavy problem, and focusing so much on one of them will leave you with the policy equivalent of Domino’s.

Further, the situation with breastfeeding in the developing world is markedly different from what’s going on in Great Britain, the US, Canada, and so forth. The online arguments are proof of this. I’ve seen the same people who argue that breastfeeding is a global issue turn around and tell concerned Americans and Brits that they have no idea what’s appropriate in Peru or Ghana. This may be true, but so is the reverse. International groups like STC have to remember that when they release papers making global recommendations about infant feeding, that they are inviting commentary from a global audience. That’s why we can’t make blanket statements about infant feeding and child health, or try and implement the same rules in order to get the same results. We wouldn’t go into a rural village where families share a 300-square foot hut and start lecturing them about the dangers of co-sleeping, and yet we assume that the same one-size-fits-all public health messaging is fair game when it comes to infant feeding. Breastfeeding might indeed be a global issue, but the type of issue it is varies greatly depending on what part of the globe you’re on.

 

The two headed chimera of infant feeding studies

It’s been a crazy week here, and I was really hoping to pull some pithy, short post out of the exhausted recesses of my brain. So when a study came across the wire touting extended formula feeding as a risk factor for a certain kind of childhood leukemia, I stuck my fingers in my ears. (Well, I posted about it on the Facebook page, but that’s kind of like the passive aggressive form of social media, isn’t it?) And a day or two later, when the Interwebz started buzzing about the British version of the infamous Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding “study”, I shoved a pillow over my head and sang the soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast really loudly (that’s what’s popular with the Fearless Children these days. It’s a great soundtrack and all, but seriously, how many times can a person hear Be Our Guest without going nuts? Although I did recently discover this YouTube gem, which has given Little Town – or, as Fearlette calls it, “Belle Sahwng” – a whole new meaning…).

One is named “Twitter”, the other “Parenting Science”

Unfortunately, I’m realizing that there is far too much inaccuracy and fear mongering going around to ignore. I don’t think I have the mental capacity to write a whole long diatribe, but I do want to address a few memes that are spreading like a California wildfire.

Courtesy of the UNICEF “Preventing disease, saving resources” report, I recently saw a discussion of how in the UK, only 1% of women are breastfeeding exclusively at 6 months. The consensus was that since formula feeders are so obviously in the majority, there is no need for them to feel marginalized.

I was shocked at that 1% statistic, and when I first heard it I was seriously blown away. But let’s look a bit closer at what the report actually says:

“….the proportion of women still breastfeeding at six weeks after birth increased by only a few percentage points between 2000 and 2005 – to just under 50% (Bolling et al, 2007). Rates of exclusive breastfeeding are much lower – only 45% of women reported that they were breastfeeding exclusively at one week after birth; fewer than 1% were still doing so at six months (Bolling et al, 2007). The rapid discontinuation of breastfeeding in the early days and weeks after birth, seen consistently since national surveys began in 1975, has only marginally improved to date, demonstrating that women who start to breastfeed often encounter problems, whether socio-cultural or clinical in nature, and stop. Ninety per cent of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks report that they discontinue breastfeeding before they want to (Bolling et al, 2007). As a consequence, women can feel that they have failed their babies (Lee, 2007), and the great majority of babies in the UK are fed with formula in full or in part at some time during the first six months of life, and by five months of age, 75% of babies in the UK receive no breastmilk at all.” (p. 35)

First things first: notice the amount of 2007s in that paragraph. Yup, the stats they are citing are from a 2007 report, which offered statistics gleaned from a 2005 infant feeding survey. 

Aw, come off it FFF, 2005 wasn’t that long ago.  Things can’t have changed all that much in 7.5 years. 

Well, let me just say this: I want to see statistics from at least 2010. (They have them, but these 2010 survey results do not include information on duration, just initiation.) I have a gut feeling, from my reading of the research and observations I’ve made from the sheer number of emails I get from our UK sisters, that things have changed. In a Twitter conversation tonight, someone with an adolescent son mused that if social media had been around when she was a new mom, her postpartum experience would have been markedly different. The advent of social media has changed the infant feeding world – yes, it may only be on a sociological level, and we may not yet be seeing huge statistical jumps in breastfeeding rates, but both breastfeeding awareness and pressure have increased since new mothers began spending more time on Twitter and Facebook than in mommy-and-me groups, or with their sisters, friends, or mothers.

Additionally, the last sentence of the paragraph – perhaps the most jarring- carries no citation. If we don’t know what they are basing this on, it’s hard to say if it’s hard fact, or merely an assumption by the authors. (Oh- and that reference to women feeling like they have “failed their babies” rather diminishes its citation, Ellie Lee’s landmark 2007 paper about how morality plays into the infant feeding debate. From what I gathered from her work, these women do feel they failed their babies when they switch to formula because they are MADE to feel that way by society- not because they have an innate sense of wrong-doing. I think this allusion ignores a large piece of the puzzle, and allows the authors to pay lip service to formula feeders while simultaneously perpetuating the cycle of shame. Then again, I’m already ornery, so maybe I’m over-analyzing this.)

What strikes me as odd is that I recently saw this press release, also from Unicef, applauding NHS for achieving a landmark: 8 out of 10 British babies are now breastfed, thanks to the Baby Friendly Initiative. Obviously, this is referring to initiation rates, not duration, so it’s apples and oranges. Any yet, the difference in tone confuses me – if the rates are going up, and it’s a cause for celebration, why the pessimism in this new UNICEF report?

I don’t doubt that UK breastfeeding rates are lower than most Western nations. That’s been the case for awhile. But even in Norway, exclusive breastfeeding rates at 6 months are pretty abysmal. That’s because… wait for it… most babies have received some solids by then. Even before the 6-month “ready for solids” party line started being questioned, most moms were letting their babies try a bit of rice cereal or some veggies between 5-6 months. Exclusive breastfeeding means exactly that – exclusive. As in NOTHING BUT BREASTMILK. This 99% of women not exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months back in 2007 was not necessarily a group of supplementers or early weaners – they could just as well have been people who cheated a bit on the 6-month rule for solids. (And more power to them if they did, considering some experts – and many moms- believe that when to start solids should be an individual thing, and based on a baby’s readiness anytime between 4-6 months).

The thing that scares me is that this paragraph – oh bloody hell, this whole report – is based on the assumption that no journalist or policy maker is going to take the time to dig up every cited study, or to pay attention to where the statistics are coming from. I would say the majority of people (shall we say 99%?) are going to assume that this paragraph translates to only 1% of women nowadays, in 2012, are making it to 6 months without using formula and that, my friends, is simply not the case.

Stupid thing to obsess about, right? Well, it might be, except this kind of confusing rhetoric is used throughout the report. They make a big stink about only using “quality” evidence, stating that the costs to British society would be far greater if they were able to use the plethora of less-conclusive scientific literature which links “not breastfeeding” (the word “not” is italicized every time it appears in this context. Kinda weird…) with things like ovarian cancer, SIDS, adult obesity, and Celiac disease. As it stands, they have calculated the health care costs of treating diseases primarily seen in non-breastfed babies: ear infections, gastrointestinal infections, respiratory disease, and necrotising enterocolitis, as well as breast cancer in mothers.

But what exactly does this “robust evidence” consist of? The authors thoroughly vetted the studies they used to determine the rates of specific diseases – so much so, that the outcomes were often based on one or two studies (like in the case of ear infection), as well as a few used for “corroborative evidence”. This report was not trying to determine the quality of breastfeeding research, nor does it purport to offer new evidence for the correlations they site. Rather, they are simply going through, deciding which studies to use based on specific criteria, and using those outcomes to determine economic savings.

(FYI, the authors admit that they leaned heavily on the Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding methodology to calculate their own costs. Please refer to our friend Polly over at MommaData for a good breakdown of why this method is inherently flawed.)

The report, which was distributed to and covered by every major media outlet in the UK, is lengthy and exhaustive – great for researchers, not so great for journalists. I doubt many who reported on this study read all 104 pages, including citations; I doubt many understood that the goal of the report was not to determine whether any of these conditions are actually caused by not breastfeeding versus being a matter of correlation too muddled by confounding factors, but rather it went under the assumption that these diseases/conditions were in fact PROVEN to be directly influenced by suboptimal breastfeeding. Get it? Report= economic case for breastfeeding. This is not a study proving anything new.

I admit that this report is far more palatable than its Yankee counterpart. There is legitimate attention paid to why women aren’t breastfeeding, and it even references studies and literature about the guilt and feelings of failure which occur when women cannot breastfeed (if somewhat incorrectly – see above reference to Ellie Lee). I appreciate that. But just as I worried (justifiably, it seems) with the Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding, I fear that this will be adopted into the infant feeding canon, and used incorrectly to support a myriad of other studies. This is how it works, unfortunately.

I also want to mention that the lead author of this study is Mary Renfrew, who has been quoted as saying that “women are born to breastfeed”. To me, this rings of bias, which can easily lead to confirmation bias. And when you’re basing a report on the opinions of a few key people as to what is considered “quality” evidence… I wonder if a neutral party would have given this study more gravitas. Good luck finding a neutral party in this field, though…

Moving on. The next hot new thing on my Twitter feed is a study which links childhood leukemia with a longer duration of formula feeding. This study may very well be credible. I have no idea, and neither does anyone else commenting on it – because it isn’t published. It isn’t even peer reviewed. And yet it is flying through the airwaves, causing squeals of “formula feeding causes cancer!!” in a manner that echoes with thinly veiled I-told-you-so’s.

But that’s not even the interesting part. Let’s go under the assumption that this study will come out and be stellar and scientifically sound (because we can’t really do anything in terms of dissecting it until we can see the damn thing, anyway). According to the study, do you know what also carries a comparable risk of childhood cancer development? Later introduction of solids, regardless of infant feeding method. Breastfeeding alone did not have a significant effect, but rather the length of time using formula, and the length of time the child went without solids in their diet.

I haven’t seen one freaking tweet about the solids thing. Not ONE.

I may well be a Defensive Formula Feeder, as one beloved lactivist blogger has knighted me, but here’s what I don’t get: one of these (assumed) correlations supports advocating for an act which often involves major social, emotional, physical, and economical sacrifice on the part of women. (It shouldn’t, but right now, in our society, it often does.) The other correlation just implies that you need to start giving Junior a daily dose of butternut squash around 6 months of age. Why are we so focused on the one that is complicated by socio-biological factors, and not one the one which would be easy for most parents to incorporate into their child-rearing?

I’m not pissed about the studies, people. I’m pissed because THIS is how we’ve arrived at this place. This place where women are being pitted against each other; this place where we are made to feel responsible for the wealth and health of the nation, so that our governments can spend a few bucks pressuring women to breastfeed rather than figuring out real ways to enhance socioeconomic disparities; this place where one can’t question the intentions or quality of a research paper without being accused of being anti-breastfeeding or anti-mother or anti-science.

Speaking of Beauty and the Beast…this game of championing-research-which-can-mislead-and-and-scare-new-parents-before-stopping-to-fully-comprehend-it reminds me of The Mob Song (my son’s favorite). As the townspeople march towards the Beast’s castle with fiery torches, they sing: “We don’t like what we don’t understand- in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least… here we come, fifty strong, and fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong…”

Imagine those Frenchmen with Twitter and Facebook accounts, multiply them by about 1000, and you have a great explanation of what’s wrong with social media and parenting science, my own personal two-headed Chimera.

 

 

 

A little post about Piri Weepu and breastfeeding advocacy gone wrong

Did you hear the one about the rugby star who dared be filmed bottle-feeding his baby daughter as part of a New Zealand anti-smoking campaign, and found himself the accidental poster boy for the breastfeeding backlash?

There’s no punchline, unless you can find some sort of dark humor in this egregious comedy of errors. Piri Weepu, who is supposedly somewhat of a folk hero for the Kiwi set, was shown feeding his kid in a PSA, and the images were cut after LLL, the New Zealand College of Midwives and a local health organization called Plunket decided that they would be “contradictory” to the nation’s breastfeeding initiatives. An uproar ensued. Twitter exploded with people defending Weepu; the rugby star himself spoke his mind (and made himself a bit of a hero in my eyes, too, as he stood up for formula feeders everywhere); arguments flooded the feeds of nearly every bottle-feeding- and breastfeeding-related Facebook page – including my own.

Some folks pointed out the breastfeeding advocacy groups were maligned unfairly in the press. Others said that the critics were overreacting; that this was simply a case of one public health campaign infringing on another. More than a few explained that showing an image of a father bottle-feeding would harm efforts to normalize breastfeeding and perpetuate a bottle-feeding culture. After all, they could have shown Piri bathing or cuddling his child if they wanted to make it clear that he was a doting dad – was the bottle really necessary?

I’ve heard lots of good points during the past few days, but no one has been able to clearly answer what I believe is the real question: Exactly how is showing a MAN feeding his baby sending a message that WOMEN shouldn’t breastfeed?

Yes, it is true that men can induce lactation, but in most cases, men are clearly incapable of providing breast-to-mouth nourishment for their babies. They must feed their children pumped milk from their partner’s mammary glands, or formula. Both of these substances must be fed through a bottle (cup or syringe-feeding, while less controversial methods of feeding babies in the breastfeeding advocacy camp, are certainly feasible alternatives for short-term situations, but they are not practical for most people and regardless, I’d think they are still “contradictory” to the normalization of breastfeeding if we’re operating on that assumption). In other words, if you are male, the only choices are a) feed your baby with a bottle or b) don’t feed your baby at all.

I understand that the fear is that an impressionable young woman who sees this ad will think “oh, look, a big time sports hero is using bottles – bottles are cool!” and this would make her not want to breastfeed. But I think this argument would be a lot more plausible if it had been a supermodel, actress, or female sports hero with bottle in hand. And what about the positive influence this image could have? What if we have an impressionable young man in place of our hypothetical young woman – maybe he’d get the message that real men take care of their children.

But, wait. Breastfeeding is supposed to be a family affair, right? Men should be helping their female partners lactate, not demanding that they take part in feeding themselves. What if that boy watching Weepu grows up, has a kid, and talks his wife out of breastfeeding because he wants to take part in the feeding?

I guess that could happen. Still, isn’t it a less hysterical interpretation to think that he’ll still support breastfeeding (if that is something his wife wants to do), but that he would ask her to maybe let him feed a bottle of pumped milk every now and then (or god forbid, a bottle of formula, if they are combo-feeding)? Frankly, I think that is 100% within his rights. Men should not be deprived of the feeding experience just because they don’t produce milk. Once breastfeeding is established, there is no medical reason that pumping a bottle or two a day is going to disrupt the breastfeeding relationship. (Not to mention that for any woman who goes back to work before her baby can use a sippy cup, bottles are probably going to come into play.)

I doubt that this incident would have caused such fury had it been a woman holding that bottle. I think most rational folks would understand that if the government is promoting breastfeeding, all government programs should be on the same page. But this is beyond ridiculous, and all it has served to do is provoke a massive breastfeeding backlash – something that we have been seeing more and more of in the past three years. When I started blogging, Hannah Rosin had just made headlines for her courage to to speak up when no one else would. Then Joan Wolf took it to a whole new level. A whole bunch of us have followed suit, some more radically, and some more moderately, than others.

I believe in breastfeeding, and the last thing I want to see is a backlash so extreme that it ends up discouraging women from nursing. At the same time, if raising breastfeeding rates means losing all modicum of common sense, engaging in censorship, and throwing us back into the dark ages of gender discrimination… well, I can’t say I want to see that, either.

So please, powers that be, take a breath and see where your actions are taking you, before you do more harm than good. I know it’s hard, but man up.

Literally.

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