“Mothers deserve better”: An interview with Dr. Christie Del Castillo-Hegyi

Dr. Christie Del Castillo-Hegyi, MD, is a mother – and a physician- on a mission. Since she began her blog and Facebook page a few months ago, she’s become a hero to over 10,000 parents who have experienced insufficient milk or delayed lactogenesis II (the process of breastmilk “coming in” after birth). She has been tirelessly advocating for better safeguards for breastfeeding mothers, and fighting against the dogma that insists that supplementation is detrimental to a baby’s health. 

I’m honored to bring you this interview with Dr. Del Castillo-Hegyi. Her opinions are controversial, and I really admire her bravery, and how she’s turned a negative personal experience into a plea for change. Before we make blanket recommendations that force women to weigh their gut instinct against the fear of recriminations from medical professionals and hospital staff, it’s essential that we look at ALL the research- without bias, without blinders, without fear. 

– The FFF

“Mothers Deserve Better”:

An Interview with Christie Del Castillo-Hegyi, MD.

FFF: Your blog and Facebook page are called “Insufficient Breastfeeding Dangers”. What are the dangers of insufficient feeding in a newborn, exactly?

CDCH: The known potential effects of insufficient feeding are dehydration, low glucose, elevated bilirubin (jaundice) and high sodium.  All in all, those laboratory markers make up the syndrome of starvation.  Dehydration, if extreme enough, can cause decreased circulating blood volume, low blood pressure, and decreased circulation to the brain.  This can cause brain injury and even death.  In animal studies, thirty minutes of loss of circulation to the brain can cause widespread brain cell death.

 

Extreme dehydration results in hypernatremia, or high sodium, because as a baby loses water, the sodium will become concentrated.  Their brains can experience contraction similar to dehydrated fruit, which upon re-expansion through rehydration, can result in brain swelling and irreversible brain injury.  It has been documented in the literature that hypernatremic dehydration can result in brain swelling, brain hemorrhage, seizures and even death.

 

It is not clear how long a child can tolerate exclusive colostrum-feeding before they develop hypoglycemia.  I have had one mother whose child seemed dissatisfied from exclusive colostrum-feeding for only one day and was found hypoglycemic by the second day.  It is difficult to know what the typical time to developing hypoglycemia of an average exclusively breastfeeding child because glucose is not routinely checked in babies without a diabetic mother or other traditional risk factors.  Hypoglycemia eventually happens to all babies if they do not receive enough milk through breastfeeding either due to poor supply or poor latch.  EVERY article in the known medical literature that has studied newborn hypoglycemia shows evidence of harm in the form of abnormal MRI findings and decreased long-term cognitive outcomes.  A low glucose is typically cited as a glucose level of less than 45, even though some newborns may exhibit few signs of distress even at this level.  Signs of a hypoglycemic newborn is agitation, frantic feeding, inconsolable crying or lethargy.

 

Lastly, insufficient feeding can result in a third dangerous condition, called hyperbilirubinemia or jaundice.  A bilirubin of greater than 15 is considered abnormal in the literature and has been associated in multiple studies around the world with a higher risk of autism relative to newborns who don’t experience high bilirubin levels.  One study refuted these findings and it came from the Kaiser system, which is a Baby-Friendly hospital, where exclusive breastfeeding from birth is encouraged.  They produced a study that was well-done but was thousands-fold smaller in size that the largest study, which showed a positive correlation, in Denmark, where they studied the ENTIRE newborn population over 10 years, which included over 700,000 newborns.  The Denmark study found a 67% higher risk of autism in jaundiced newborns.

 

That being said, I don’t want to worry every mom whose child had jaundice.  Not every jaundiced newborn has a level above 15.  Also, not every child who develops a level above 15 will develop autism.  Autism is still a genetic disease.  I believe babies who are born with a lot of autism genetics, as predicted by having lots of scientists, mathematicians and engineers in their families, who experience a physiologic insult, such as lack of oxygen to the brain and jaundice (both demonstrated in the literature to be associated with autism) may go on to have the disabling condition of autistic spectrum disorder.

FFF: What sparked your interest in this issue?

CDCH: My newborn son developed hypernatremic jaundice and dehydration because I was assured by the breastfeeding manuals that there is always enough milk in the breast as long as I keep breastfeeding.  I was told that, “he would be hungry” and that my “latch was perfect” by our lactation consultant the day we left the hospital.  No one ever told me it was possible for a child to become dehydrated and unconscious because there was not enough milk present.  We were told to count the diapers but how wet is a wet diaper?

 

My son lost 15% by the third day, the day after discharge and my pediatrician must not have calculated the percent lost because he gave us the option of continuing to breastfeed and to wait for the 4th or 5th day.  I realized when I was watching my son get an IV that what I did must be common and that other mothers must be experiencing this horror too.  I thought, “What must my son’s brain injury look like and why hadn’t I heard of this before?”  Three-and-a-half years later, I found out what his brain injury looked like.

 

What I saw with my own physician- and mother-eyes was the slow torture of a newborn child.  Babies who are asked to endure hours of frantic feeding without compensation of milk, otherwise known as “cluster feeding,” are experiencing agony.  No textbook, lactation consultant or physician will ever convince me otherwise.  To this day, the description of what I saw is embedded in every breastfeeding manual as normal and vital for the stimulation of milk production.  We are systematically telling new mothers to ignore their child’s hunger cues by telling them there is ALWAYS enough colostrum and by scaring them into withholding formula even when a newborn needs it.  THAT is why newborn dehydration will never go away with simply increasing breastfeeding support and follow-up appointments.  Unless a mother is given the knowledge about the potential harms of insufficient feeding and the right to feed her own baby, newborns will continue to experience these complications and be hospitalized for it every day.

FFF: When you began researching the topic, was there anything that surprised or shocked you?quotescover-JPG-66

CDCH: I began researching the topic shortly after receiving our son’s formal diagnosis of autism, which was February, 2014.  I first studied jaundice and autism and was surprised that there were so many studies that linked the two conditions, because I had never heard of the risk factor listed in the patient literature on autism.  I wondered why a modifiable risk factor would not be heavily attacked in the face of an epidemic.  I believe it is because it is linked to breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding has enjoyed an untouchable status in the medical community.  So much so that no part of it as outlined by the lactation community has been challenged by the physician community.  We assumed because it is associated with breastfeeding, what ever the guidelines are must be safe, despite evidence that many newborns on a daily basis get admitted for dehydration and jaundice from exclusive breastfeeding.  Unfortunately, any challenge is quickly met with an accusation that the individual is “anti-breastfeeding” or “pro-formula,” when in fact, perhaps it may simply be a challenge like mine, whose purpose is to keep the newborn safe from harm.  I am surprised by the lack of activism by the medical community to reduce or stop the incidence of a horrible, life-threatening and brain-threatening condition that can be prevented with informing mothers of these complications and a few bottles of formula to keep a child out of the hospital.

quotescover-JPG-42I was surprised to find out that we really haven’t exclusively breastfed from birth for millennia before the creation of formula.  If that were so, indigenous cultures that have no access to formula currently would be doing so nearly 100% of the time.  In fact, there is no evidence that we have widely exclusively breastfed from a single mother at all.  According to a review of the history of breastfeeding written by an IBCLC, lactation failure was first described in Egypt in 1550 B.C.  Wet nurses were often employed to feed newborns whose mother could not lactate.  There are modern day cultures where babies are breastfed by a community of mothers, not just one mother.  Also, the breastfeeding literature is rife with articles showing how problematically low exclusive breastfeeding from birth is all around the world because most cultures give what they call, “pre-lacteal feeds.”  These moms probably just call it “feeding.”  Moms all over the world recognize that their children may need more than what is coming out of the breast and they have populated their countries on the tenets of feeding their children what they need every day.  It wasn’t until the breastfeeding resurgence in the 1980’s and the codification of exclusive breastfeeding from birth through the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative of the World Health Organization written in 1992, that we started feeding newborns colostrum-only during the first days of life in the hospital.  This was written primarily to counteract the dangerous feeding of formula prepared with contaminated water to babies in the developing world, which was an important public health endeavor.  However, the guidelines to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months largely ignored the common possibility of insufficient milk production experienced by many mothers.  So feeding newborns without supplementation only began in the 1990’s.

Nurses who worked in the newborn nursery in the 1980’s account that newborns were supplemented from the first day of life with 2 ounces of formula.  Most newborns tolerated these feeds and did not vomit it as widely claimed by the lactation community.  I found that the newborn stomach at birth is not 5 cc, as claimed by the lactation community.  It is in fact roughly 20 cc’s or 2/3rds an ounce, as summarized by a review of 6 different articles looking at actual newborns.  This is also the static volume of a newborn stomach and may not account for peristalsis, which may allow a newborn to accommodate more.  I discovered that it is quite implausible that the stomach can grow 10 times its size in 2 days and that a one-day-old newborns can in fact drink 2 ounces in one meal without vomiting at all.

Many moms asked me, “How much weight CAN they lose?” and “What DOES my newborn need?”  I looked again to the literature looking for evidence showing the safety of weight loss in newborns and NOT A SINGLE ARTICLE showing that 10% weight loss over 10 days is safe in every newborn, which is the current standard of care.  This teaching has been accepted for decades now.  To answer the second question, I sought out what a one-day-old’s daily caloric requirement was and what the caloric content of colostrum is.  I found that a one-day-old’s caloric requirement is the same as that of a three-day-old’s, because they have the same organs and same activity all three days.  A one-day-old newborn needs 110 kcal/kg/day and colostrum has 60 kcal/100 mL.  I must have done this calculation by hand 20 times because I found that this resulted in a one-day-old needing 2.8 ounces of colostrum per pound per day .  A 7 lb child would need 19.6 oz of milk in one day.  I confirmed this finding because I gave my 5.5 lb twin girls free access to supplementation and they each took 2 oz every 3 hours on their first day, a total of 16 oz.  They only gained 1 oz! That leaves 15 oz going completely toward their metabolic activity.  For them, they required 2.7 oz/lb/day.

How much actual science and observation of actual babies and safety data was done to come up with the breastfeeding guidelines?  There are many articles that show that unlimited supplementation can reduce breastfeeding duration, which is why formula is withheld from babies, but none that showed this practice was safe for the baby’s brain in the long run.  We have no idea what threshold of weight loss is in fact safe for a baby’s brain, because it has not been studied.  While babies’ bodies can endure days of underfeeding, their brains cannot.  That is what I am asking the scientific community to study.

FFF: Do you think that medical professionals are afraid to say anything that could be construed as “anti-breastfeeding”? How have your peers responded to your work in this area?

CDCH: Yes, medical professionals are afraid to say anything contrary to what the lactation community accepts as true because they do not want to be perceived as “anti-breastfeeding” or “pro-formula.”  Being “pro-formula” or “formula-sponsored” is a common accusation that I receive despite all the “pro-breastfeeding” instruction that I provide.  People have assumed that if you are against any part of the breastfeeding prescription, you MUST be against breastfeeding.

I am absolutely pro-breastfeeding.  I am absolutely AGAINST starving a child to achieve it.  I have received quiet support from several of my peers, but mostly silence for the majority.  I believe colleagues who are silent are incredulous or shocked or afraid.  I can’t truly know.  I can understand it because I am a physician and we are taught to stick close to the pack.  I am literally running away from it.

Until there is data from a credible and impartial source like the CDC or the Joint Commission, I will not have the proof that the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is causing long-lasting harm.  There is already plenty of harm that has resulted locked in the hearts of many mothers who experienced this trauma.  I hope moms from both our Facebook sites will be willing to help advocate for increased safety for newborns by submitting written and/or video testimony on how the BFHI harmed them and their child.

FFF: What sort of response have you received from publishing your blog and Facebook page? 

CDCH: Outrage from breastfeeding moms and opposition from most lactation consultants except for a loved few, two of which fully recognize the harms of insufficient feeding to baby’s and their moms.  However, the ones I live for are the responses from moms who say that this happened to them and their babies either were harmed, hospitalized or were luckily saved from harm by an independently minded mom, nurse or other individual that told them their baby was hungry and needed a bottle.  These moms write to thank me for validating what happened to them and for telling them that this was not their fault, that what they saw was real and that this should never happen to any mother and child.  I have received messages from moms experiencing what I describe in my letter in real time and I have helped those moms advocate for their child, even when their professionals were bullying them to keep withholding formula!  It’s crazy.  What are we doing to our newborns?

What I feel most disappointed about is the lack of response I have received from the Executive Committee of American Academy of Pediatrics who I have been trying to contact for at least 6 months.  No response from the organization that is supposed to protect our newborns.  So I decided to inform the public on my own.  At first I was afraid.  Now I am not.

FFF: Have you endured any personal or professional attacks due to asking these tough questions about our current protocol for early breastfeeding?

CDCH: Tons.  People on the internet can act with cruelty because they don’t have to suffer any consequences.  I try not to let it get to me because I know it comes from a place that is likely sincere like mine, a mother trying to protect her newborn from harm.  Some mothers perceive my ideas as harmful, likely because the thought of starving your child is so horrible, I get the most harsh messages from breastfeeding moms, often moms whose children developed pathological weight loss.  I haven’t received too many challenges from physicians though, interestingly enough.  At least among my colleagues on Facebook, I have received supportive messages.

FFF: In an ideal world, how do you think hospitals could alter their procedures to better protect babies and mothers from the dangers of insufficient breastfeeding?

CDCH: These are my core recommendations:

1) Instructional videos on manual expression to check for the presence of colostrum.  Mom should also be instructed on listening for swallows to detect transfer of milk.

 

2) Pre- and post-breastfeeding weights to ensure transfer of milk and identify newborns at risk for underfeeding.

 

3) Calculation of the 7% weight loss threshold at delivery so that a mother knows when supplementation may be needed, which can be posted in her room.  The most critical clinical data an exclusively breastfeeding mom needs to know is the percent weight loss of her child.

 

4) Universal informed consent and thorough counseling on the possibility of underfeeding and jaundice due to delayed or failed lactogenesis and giving mothers permission to supplement their child if they go under the weight limit at home using a baby scale. Mothers must know the signs of a newborn in distress including hours of feeding continuously, crying after unlatching, and not sleeping. Most of all, a mother should be advised to check her supply by hand-expression or pumping to ensure that her child is in fact getting fed.  If little milk is present, she should be given permission ahead of time to supplement by syringe with next-day follow-up with a pediatrician and lactation consultant to assess the effectiveness of technique and transfer of milk if such an event arises.

5) Uniform daily bilirubin (abnormal total bilirubin > 14) and glucose checks (abnormal glucose < 45) for exclusively breastfed infants who are losing weight or who have any degree of jaundice.  Both these values are critical to detect physiology that can cause brain injury.

6) Twice daily weight checks in the hospital and at home until lactogenesis and consistent milk transfer has been established with a mother-baby dyad.  These can be plotted before discharge to predict the expected weight loss the day after discharge if mother’s milk does not come in.  A mother can check the weight at home and supplement if the child reaches the weight loss threshold.

7) Detailed instructions on supplementation only after nursing to continue the stimulation needed for milk production.  Supplementation should be a choice and be accepted and supported by the medical community as a patient right.  A mother has the right to feed her child above all goals the medical community has for her.

8) A breastfeeding safety checklist to reduce medical error in the care of a mother and exclusively breastfed newborn.

 

Lastly, my advice for new mothers at home is to have an experienced parent around for the first week to help.  Parents need sleep and they don’t get much in the postpartum period.  Additionally, experienced parents know the look and sound of a child who is hungry or in distress.  The child’s wishes should be honored.  I believe in the human rights of a newborn to be fed what they need because following the alternative can lead to what my son experienced.

FFF: Your page grows in popularity every day. Have you been surprised at how many mothers have been affected by this issue?

CDCH: I am not surprised by how many mothers have experienced this issue.  Mothers have been experiencing this for 2 decades now since exclusive breastfeeding from birth has been the mandate.  This is the first that the experience is being made public because mothers have been uniformly shamed for having their child go through this.

Even now, people still post comments that blame me for not knowing, for not producing enough milk, for not seeking out enough help when the entire teaching by the lactation community prevents a mother from knowing this is possible and the standard of care does not detect what is coming out of a mother’s breast.  We have been taught to abandon responding to a baby’s cry in order to achieve exclusive breastfeeding and rely instead on weight checks and bilirubin levels to determine “medical necessity” for supplementation.

What are we doing with our newborns?  What are we doing to our mothers?  It breaks my heart every day the things mothers have told me about inadvertently starving their newborns.  They all sought help and all followed the instruction of their providers while seeing that there was something wrong with their child.  But they were told breastfeeding is always enough as long as your child is producing diapers.  What we are doing is NOT enough. These are the most well-intentioned and motivated mothers who do this. They read parenting books, attend classes and follow their doctor’s orders like I did.  I was in the hospital for a whole 48 hours while my son was receiving nothing for me!  Then I was at my pediatrician’s office the next day, at a lactation consultant’s office the day after and in the hospital by that evening.

Mothers are being led astray by the current breastfeeding dogma and being led to hospitalize their precious babies.  These mothers deserve better.

Vist Dr. Del Castillo-Hegyi’s Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/insufficientbreastfeedingdangers?fref=ts

 

 

Vital Signs: Ignoring postpartum depression and psychosis won’t make them go away

Another horror story. Another mom. Three beautiful girls who will never have another birthday, whose last memory will be terror at the hands of the person they trusted the most.

I don’t know the details. I don’t really want to know the details. I do know that this mother reached out, told her own mom she was “feeling crazy”. I do know that she had three babies in a row, and that the youngest was 2 months. I do know that there’s a strong chance that this was the result of postpartum psychosis.

And I know that this has got to stop.

Can we protect every family, prevent every case? Of course not. But postpartum mental health is taking a backseat when it should be sitting shotgun to every maternal and child health program. That’s a start, at least. We spend so much time worrying about a woman’s breasts, while we dismiss her mind. We worry about how hormones and birth practices affect lactation, while we disregard how they affect our emotions.

After we give birth, we are whisked off to the maternity ward. Our vital signs are monitored, but other vital signs are ignored. A mom who can’t seem to connect with her baby. Who is scared, and asking for help. Who is alone and voiceless. Her pulse may be steady, but her hands shake. Her breasts may leak colostrum, but her eyes may leak silent tears. And we ignore this.

GE-Healthcare-Dash-2500-v4-Vital-Signs-Monitor

OB/GYNs don’t see mothers until 4-6 weeks postpartum. In some cases, that will be too late.

Pediatricians see moms with their newborns several days postpartum, but they are focused on the infant. As they should be. We don’t expect a heart surgeon to be concerned with the diabetic foot of his cardiac patient’s wife.

When I see the role of lactation consultants and breastfeeding counselors growing, gaining more attention, more insurance coverage, I also see an opportunity. What if these professionals could be trained to screen for postpartum mental health issues, if they could recognize red flags and know how to refer families to the proper resources? What if they were trained to support families in their feeding journeys, with the goal being a happy, healthy family and not just a breastfeeding statistic?

With the state of our health care system, I don’t expect that an entirely new support staff can be instilled at every hospital, for the sole purpose of protecting maternal mental health. But when 1 in 7 mothers suffer from postpartum depression or anxiety, I think that constitutes just as much of a public health concern as the supposed risks of “sub-optimal breastfeeding practices” in developed countries. If we are going to focus so heavily on breastfeeding, could we at least give a little simultaneous attention to a mom’s mood while we inspect her breasts?

What happened to the Coronado family is sub-optimal. What passes as “support” for postpartum women is sub-optimal. There is no reason we can’t support breastfeeding while prioritizing maternal mental health. Both are important, but one has been systematically ignored, shoved under piles of paperwork, given lip service. We only seem to worry about postpartum depression in terms of how it affects breastfeeding “success”. There are so many things wrong with that sentence, with that mentality. It’s like worrying about prostate cancer only in terms of how it will affect sex and procreation. Biological norms are important, but support also means protecting those whose biology turns on them.

If we can only speak of maternal needs under the umbrella of lactation support, I can live with that. As long as those needs are met, I can live with that. As long as those needs are being met, maybe we can all live with that.

Survive with that.

Thrive with that.

 

 

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.

 

WTF, AAP? The problem with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ newest statement on breastfeeding

“Breastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition. Given the documented short- and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.”

Thus begins the newest statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding infant feeding. And consequently, thus begins the newest battle for FFFs anyone who cares about the freedom of women to choose how they feed their babies, and how they use their bodies.

The ghosts of statements past

It may seem like an overreaction, but the choice of words in this “official statement” from the preeminent child health organization of the United States, is deeply disturbing to me. To explain why, I think it may be helpful to look at the AAP’s past statements regarding breastfeeding, over the last 15 years.

Back in 1997,the AAP concluded its position paper on breastfeeding by stating that “Although economic, cultural, and political pressures often confound decisions about infant feeding, the AAP firmly adheres to the position that breastfeeding ensures the best possible health as well as the best developmental and psychosocial outcomes for the infant. Enthusiastic support and involvement of pediatricians in the promotion and practice of breastfeeding is essential to the achievement of optimal infant and child health, growth, and development.” This reads like a strong suggestion to breastfeed; a plea for pediatricians to support breastfeeding but at the same time acknowledging that sometimes there are complications which make the “preferred” choice a difficult one to carry out.

By 2005, an updated statement was released. This statement was relatively similar to the 1997 one, but contained some updated information (including an advisory statement about Vitamin D supplements in breastfed infants). The concluding statement was the same as that in the 1997 document.

Now, in 2012, we are presented with a document that’s opening paragraph puts the kibosh on personal autonomy for mothers. There is no longer any acknowledgment – however cursory – of external factors which might complicate the decision to breastfeed; the section on contraindications is worded in a way which suggests that even meth-addicted women are better off breastfeeding; and pediatricians are encouraged that their “role in advocating and supporting proper breastfeeding practices is essential and vital for the achievement of this preferred public health goal.” The concluding paragraph is in stark contrast to that of prior statements:

Research and practice in the 5 years since publication of the last AAP policy statement have reinforced the conclusion that breastfeeding and the use of human milk confer unique nutritional and nonnutritional benefits to the infant and the mother and, in turn, optimize infant, child, and adult health as well as child growth and development. Recently, published evidence-based studies have confirmed and quantitated the risks of not breastfeeding. Thus, infant feeding should not be considered as
a lifestyle choice but rather as a basic health issue. As such, the pediatrician’s role in advocating and supporting proper breastfeeding practices is essential and vital for the achievement of this preferred public health goal.

I am woman, hear me roar (unless it keeps me from breastfeeding, in which case I should shut up)


In this statement, pediatricians are called upon to visit an AAP website which will “provides a wealth of breastfeeding-related material and resources to assist and support pediatricians in their critical role as advocates of infant well-being.”

Labeling the intended audience of this paper as “advocates of infant well-being” is exactly right: pediatricians are advocates of infant well-being, not maternal well-being. Within a section on “maternal benefits” to breastfeeding, the authors claim that “a large prospective study on child abuse and neglect perpetuated by mothers found, after correcting for potential confounders, that the rate of abuse/neglect was significantly increased for mothers who did not breastfeed as opposed to those who did.” This study was the one we discussed here; if you go back and read that post, you’ll realize that this study did NOT control for the most important (and in my opinion, most obvious) confounder, which was that women who are most likely to be neglectful or abusive will not choose to breastfeed in the first place. This study was one of the weakest, most ridiculous pieces of drivel that I’ve read in the entire body of breastfeeding science, and that’s saying a lot. The fact that the AAP would stoop so low to add this to their official breastfeeding statement speaks volumes, in my opinion. (Although considering they later allude to the infamous Bartick study as an “evidence-based stud(y)” which has “confirmed and quantitated the risks of not breastfeeding”, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.) Insult is added to injury by their brief discussion of postpartum depression (“Prospective cohort studies have noted an increase in postpartum depression in mothers who do not breastfeed or who wean early…”).

It is one thing for pediatricians to write a strongly worded statement about the benefits of human milk to babies. If we’re going to talk about maternal benefits, I’d like to hear about that from a cancer specialist, a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist who specializes in maternal mental health, and maybe an OBGYN. Not my child’s pediatrician, who hasn’t focused on adult vaginas or brains since they graduated from medical school. “But FFF”, you’re probably saying, “it’s for the children! The children!!” Yes, it may well be. But if we’re going to discuss subjugating the needs of the mother for the needs of the child, then we are getting ourselves into a very controversial area, and one which I don’t think the AAP has the right – or the depth of knowledge – to tackle. And regardless of where you may personally stand on that issue, I fear that if we go down this path, it’s a short trek over to another road where they start sterilizing women over 40 because they have a higher risk of birth defects, or making certain reproductive technologies illegal because they aren’t the “normative standard” of how we are supposed to reproduce. Melodramatic? I sure hope so, but I don’t think it’s that far a stretch.

Redundant Redundancy

Here’s what I find interesting: the authors state that they are releasing this updated statement because “(r)ecently published research and systematic reviews have reinforced the conclusion that breastfeeding and human milk are the reference normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition. The current statement updates the evidence for this conclusion…” And yet, the main source of data is the AHRQ Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries, which is also the basis for the recent Surgeon General statement on breastfeeding. This document is actually a really good read, as nearly every benefit they cite is capped with a strong warning not to get over-excited over the findings as they are bogged down by study limitations, confounding factors, etc. If you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest that you do – it will make you feel a hell of a lot better about the foreboding statements made by our government and the AAP.

If you look at the references at the bottom of the newest AAP breastfeeding statement, you’ll see that quite a few of the cited studies are indeed from after 2005, when the last AAP statement was released. In that sense, a new statement is justified. But what do these studies really tell us that the older ones haven’t? None of the “rules” have changed; it’s more of the same type of evidence, which suggests a slight benefit after adjusting for confounders (which are usually not appropriately comprehensive). As usual, I feel I must state for the record that I am in NO WAY suggesting that these findings are fundamentally incorrect – I’m only trying to remind everyone that the methods used to obtain this data are inherently flawed. Breastfeeding may indeed be so far superior to formula that it makes breastfeeding look like Lindsay Lohan circa-Parent Trap, and formula feeding resemble post-jail Lohan. But so far, the body of evidence looks more like a comparison between chubby Renee Zellwegger and skinny Renee Zellweger. The body might be a bit different, but the face is cute regardless. (And hell, she won an Oscar for the film she did when she was chubby.)

Now, there have been some studies published since 2005 that would have been interesting to include – like this one, which argues that breastfeeding problems are strongly linked to PPD, which may explain away the data that they are using to promote breastfeeding as a maternal mental health advantage. Or how about this one, which counters the claim that breastfed children are smarter than their peers. Or this one, this one, or  this one, which found that breastfeeding has no correlation with future obesity risk? But no. The AAP cherry-picks the studies which support its ideologies, and ignores the ones which might offer some truly new insight. Now, whether or not we like to admit it, here on the interwebz and in scholarly debates, we all cherry-pick to some degree. (In fact, one could argue that I just did it now, by purposely finding 5 studies which supported my argument.) This is because we take sides; we fall victim to confirmation bias; or sometimes, we just don’t do our homework. But a major medical organization should be bipartisan. A major medical organization should be honest about the evidence, especially when there are conflicting studies. A major medical organization should not be cherry-picking.

The really nasty elephant in the room (or better yet, elephantitis, maybe of the testicles. It’s that disturbing.)

And lastly…Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that formula is so risky that it is a true health threat to our nation, and meriting this dramatic sort of action on the part of the government and the AAP. Then why the heck doesn’t anyone try to improve formula? We live in a time where we can clone sheep and create human life in a test tube – we really can’t come up with an adequate substitute for human milk? Why shouldn’t women have the ability to overcome their biology if they so desire? Whatever science has to say about modern infant formula as a product, the fact remains that sociology may see it in a different light. Formula feeding does allow a woman to choose to return to work immediately and allow a partner or caregiver – god forbid, even a male one – to care for her infant. Whether we agree or disagree with her choice, it is, and should remain, her right. If we are going to argue that not breastfeeding is as risky as other health concerns like smoking or drinking and driving, then why aren’t we rioting in the streets demanding better?

I don’t believe that the situation with formula is that dire; not be a long shot. I happen to think that formula does a pretty bang-up job of nourishing kids, and that loving, nurturing formula feeding parents do amazingly well at providing the “nonnutritive” advantages despite their lack of lactation. But I’m starting to realize that there is a hideous punchline to this debate: if people think that formula is so awful, why is the only solution to breastfeed exclusively? I believe that for most, breastfeeding would end up being the preferred way to go if all things were equal. Social inequities aside, however – there are women out there who may just not want to breastfeed. Just like there are women out there who don’t want to have a hospital birth. Or women who want to be single mothers by choice. Or pick any other choice which falls outside the “norm” or may not be accepted as kosher by mainstream society.

So, AAP, here’s what I have to say about your “amended statement”: please realize that by “advocating for children” in this manner, you are putting mothers – and fathers, for that matter – in a really stressful situation. You are doing so based on research which is no in many ways no better than it was 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. And you are certainly not helping children by aiding a system which is trying to take away a choice from their parents, a choice which has the ability to solve medical, marital, employment, and financial problems, thus making them better parents in the long term.

FAIL. Try again, please.

 

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