Of nanny states and nonsense

This is why I hate politics.

Earlier today, Jennifer Doverspike’s scathing indictment of Latch On NYC popped up on the Federalist website. By this evening, Amanda Marcotte had written a similarly scathing indictment of Jennifer’s piece on Slate. Both talked about hospital policies, formula feeder paranoia, and boobs. But in the end, what should have been a smart point-counterpoint between two passionate, intelligent women turned into a steaming pile of another bodily substance.

Yep, I’m talking about shit. 

Look, guys, I’m sorry for the language, but I’m done being classy, at least for tonight. Tonight, my Boston-bred, townie self is coming out, because I. Have. Flipping. HAD IT.

Doverspike’s piece does veer into political territory, mostly from the use of the term “nanny state”, a phrase that is undoubtably evocative (and apparently intoxicating) in today’s partisan climate. There were portions of her article that made me (a self-proclaimed, sole member of the Turtle party – our platform is that we just hide our heads in our shells whenever political issues arise. Anyone’s welcome to join!) a little uncomfortable, mostly because I worried that her important message would get lost by those on the Left. But I naively thought (us Turtles are naive about such things, considering we start singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever someone brings up Congress and prefer to our news from the Colbert Report) that she’d covered these bases with her final paragraph:

There are, of course, many laws the government issues for our protection and those of our children. Seatbelt laws, child car seat booster requirements, bans on drop side cribs and helmet laws. Regardless of whether or not these encompass valid risks (many do, some don’t), they do not encroach on personal freedom the way laws regarding parenting methods do. And don’t get me wrong; this goes in all directions. Infant feeding, and the personal freedoms associated with it, is not a liberal or conservative issue.

Apparently, it is a liberal or conservative issue, at least according to Marcotte, whose response to Doverspike felt far nastier than necessary. Marcotte accuses Doverspike of not doing her homework regarding the implementation of the WHO Code, for example:

What Doverspike fails to mention is why the WHO wrote out these regulations in the first place, something a quick Google search reveals. As reported at the time by theNew York Times, researchers had discovered that poor parents were stretching out formula by watering it down, which was leading to malnutrition in infants. In addition, places that lack clean drinking water are places where formula feeding is downright dangerous. There are substantial benefits, particularly worldwide, to creating a culture where breast-feeding is the go-to way to feed children, and formula is only viewed as a supplement for cases where breast-feeding isn’t working. Of course, that does cut into formula company profits, so if that’s your priority, by all means, bash the WHO’s efforts to keep babies healthy some more.

Huh. See, that’s odd, because I clearly remember reading something in Doverspike’s piece about this very issue… let’s see… ah, right:

Unlike the city of New York, the WHO  has valid reasons to be concerned with breastfeeding rates worldwide. After all, in less developed countries not breastfeeding may mean instead using cow’s milk for infants. When formula is used, the risks of it being prepared incorrectly and using contaminated water is rather high…The WHO should focus being on how to educate and support women in developing countries regarding the dangers of cow’s milk, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the importance of correctly mixing formula. Unfortunately, the WHO Code saves most of its energy in marginalizing formula companies, requiring hospitals to under no circumstances allow formula advertising and requiring that product samples only be given for research at the institutional level — “In no case,” it stipulates, “should these samples be passed on to mothers.” The WHO is also requiring labels stating the superiority of breastfeeding and warning to not use the product until consulting with a health professional.

True, she didn’t delve into the issues surrounding formula use in developing nations as deeply as she could have, but Marcotte’s take on the subject wasn’t exactly accurate, either. The Nestle controversy which she alludes to involved corporate subterfuge (women dressed as nurses convincing new mothers to use formula; these “health workers” then packed up and left, abandoning the moms with no established milk supply, no resources to procure more formula, and dirty water to use for what formula they did have), and this was what drove well-meaning individuals to create the WHO Code… but the problems that exist which lead women in these same countries away from breastfeeding are so much more complex than our Western understanding of “unethical marketing”. And to compare the risks of not breastfeeding in these countries to the risks in countries which are debating baby-friendly initiatives isn’t fair nor useful. These are two entirely separate issues.
Marcotte also dismisses Doverspike’s concerns that under Latch On, formula ”must be guarded and distributed with roughly the same precautions as addictive and harmful narcotics” by citing a “sober-minded assessment” that she claims “shows that no such things are happening”. This “sober-minded assessment” is a CNN option piece from writer Taylor Newman, who repeatedly brings up her own breastfeeding experience in a hospital with piss-poor support. Newman engages in some of the most immature name-calling I’ve seen in a respected news source – those who disagree with her opinion of Latch On are “obnoxious”, “unhinged” they write “badly-written” posts that are just ‘kicking up dust”. (If this is sober-minded, hand over the vodka. This is mean-girl, bitchy, completely anti-feminist bullshit, is what it is. If a man called a fellow woman writer “unhinged” or accused her of being hysterical, I bet we’d see plenty of backlash from Slate. ) She also makes the fatal mistake so many reporters, pundits and advocates have made in this tiresome debate: she’s only seeing it through the lens of her own experience. It may not seem like a huge deal to someone who wanted to breastfeed (and ultimately did, successfully) that new moms will have to ask for formula each time a baby needs to eat, or that they will have to endure a lecture on the risks and intense questioning of their decision. But try living through that experience as, say, a single mom who was molested as a child. Imagine you don’t have anyone around to defend you, to demand that the nurses treat your decision not to use your body in a particular manner with respect. Imagine that you don’t feel like reliving your abuse and telling a total stranger – repeatedly – why the idea of letting a baby suck on your breasts makes you want to throw up.
I know I’m digressing here, and again, I’m sorry to be throwing my usual I-Support-You, let’s all hold hands and braid each other’s hair Pollyanna-esque, evolved FFF persona out the window. This is old school FFF, the angry one, the one whose claws come out when I see that women are being told their voices don’t matter, their concerns don’t matter, their choices don’t matter. The one who refuses to allow an important discussion – a women’s rights discussion, not a political one – get bogged down in right vs. left rhetoric.
Marquette’s choice of image to go along with her article is a baby holding a bottle with the caption “Freedom Fighters”. Again, I have to ask – really? Fine, be mad that the Libertarian Federalist invoked the Nanny State and beat up on poor old Bloomberg. Rage against that. But to belittle those of us who care about this issue is petty and cruel. And to ignore – once again – that what Latch On’s PR machine told the press was quite different from what was written in the actual materials used to implement the program; to ignore that no one has actually done a follow-up story since the initiative was announced which reports actual accounts from actual women who actually delivered in actual Latch On hospitals and used actual formula – this is just poor journalism.
Feminists, journalists, bloggers – I belong to all of your clubs, and I’m sure you’re about to revoke my membership, but I have to ask: Why are we rehashing the same arguments over and over, instead of discussing how we could come to a more beneficial, neutral ground? For example – couldn’t women be counseled on the benefits of breastfeeding before they enter the emotional sauna of the postpartum ward? Yes, I realize that not all women have access to prenatal care, but for those who do, this seems like a practical and  beneficial adjustment. If these issues are discussed beforehand, at least a mom who knows from the start that she doesn’t want to nurse can sign whatever documentation is necessary to tell the state s has been fully informed of the “risks” and “still insists” (Latch On’s term, not mine) on formula feeding. For those who change their minds while in the maternity ward – well, couldn’t we just agree that she gets one lecture on why it’s a bad decision, and then receives the education, support and materials she needs to feed her baby safely, rather than having to go through the whole rigamarole every time her infant begins rooting?
Or here’s another idea – take the hyperbole out of the initiative. Stop saying these things are “baby-friendly” or “progressive” or “empowering” because they aren’t necessarily so. And by saying that they are, you get people all riled up, politically. You start hearing terms like “nanny state” because some of us don’t want to be told how we should feel (or how our babies should feel, for that matter. If my mom couldn’t feed me and some nurses weren’t letting me access the next best thing, I’d be hella pissed, and that environment would become decidedly baby unfriendly. Especially when I punched the person refusing my mom the formula in the nose with my tiny baby fist). You start getting feminists shouting about second waves and third waves and whether women should feel empowered by their ladyparts or held down by them. It’s one big mess, is what I’m saying. So can we stop it, now? Can we start writing articles that are balanced reports rather than press releases for a particular administration or cause? Can we stop hurling insults at each other just because we don’t agree on what being a mother should mean?
Can we please, for the love of all things holy, just flipping stop?

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.


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.


Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Please stop the smoke and mirrors

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

I’m sure you’re sick to death of hearing about the Latch On NYC initiative. There’s been so many blog posts, opinion pieces, counter-opinion pieces, etc., inspired by the announcement of this policy… I felt it was redundant to add more fuel to the fire, after I said my piece the week the policy was made public. I was hoping to avoid making this personal, as we’re both from the same town (in fact, my mom and you were neighbors growing up) and I always had a soft spot in my heart for the local boy made good.

But unfortunately, your camp has made that an impossibility. Not necessarily because of the policy itself (although I do have many problems with it), but because they have pulled the most transparent, juvenile stunt that essentially begs for caustic commentary.

Back to the policy for a minute: I’m sure you’re aware that it has changed dramatically. So much so that everything I talked about in my prior post now sounds like the rantings of a paranoid moron, with a fondness for extrapolation. And it’s not just me – smart, rational women like Katherine Stone are enduring an onslaught of patronizing op/eds which reduce their concerns over personal autonomy and women’s rights to a “misunderstanding” of the policy.

I have serious concerns about the capabilities of our country’s journalists for not pointing out the giant, defecating elephant in the room: the reason there is a disconnect between what those of us who have raged against the policy wrote, and what is now being written by people sounding far more rational and balanced, is that the literature that was initially published online by your Dept of Health has been erased from existence. In its stead lies a “Myths and Facts” document, a step-by-step dismantling of the concerns brought forth by the initiative’s critics.

The outlining of the plan which made me so hysterical? They literally made it disappear. As in, whoosh, the hat became a rabbit. No public announcement admitting that your administration had overstepped or misjudged; not even an acknowledgment that the policy had been altered or revised. Just one day there, next day not.

Let’s walk through the new “Myths and Facts” document which took the place of the old “FAQ”. Unfortunately, I did not take screen shots of the original – I wish to god I did, but I naively never thought your office would condone such a blatantly disrespectful, Orwellian action. Luckily, a fantastic blogger at a site called Breastfeeding Without BS copied the sections I found most troubling verbatim on her post about the initiative, so we still have access to the text as it originally appeared.

What the new document says:

Myth: The city is requiring hospitals to put formula under lock and key.

Fact: Hospitals are not being required to keep formula under lock and key under the City’s voluntary initiative. Formula will be fully available to any mother who chooses to feed her baby with formula. What the program does is encourage hospitals to end what had long been common practice: putting promotional formula in a mother’s room, or in a baby’s bassinet or in a go-bag – even for breastfeeding mothers who had not requested it.

What the old document said:

What does it mean to restrict access to formula?

Restricting access to formula means storing formula away from where it is easily visible and accessible to staff and mothers. Access to formula is restricted by both:

…Storing formula in a locked location, such as a storage room, cabinet or an automated medication system or, storing formula in a location outside, but reasonably near, the maternity unit……Limiting the number of hospital staff with access to formula by implementing a system to identify which hospital member accessed the formula supply; some examples are a log book, a code or a key system. 


Mayor, I’m confused. How is keeping formula in a “locked location”, available to only a “limited number of hospital staff” who should use a “log book, code or a key system”, making formula “fully available to any mother who chooses to feed her baby with formula”? I don’t recall if the original document explicitly stated that hospitals must keep formula locked up or if it was merely suggested, but in either case, I don’t think it’s a stretch to see why this particular “myth” seemed like a scary truth to many of us.


What the new document says:

Myth: Mothers who want formula will have to convince a nurse to sign it out by giving a medical reason.

Fact: Mothers can and always will be able to simply ask for formula and receive it free of charge in the hospital – no medical necessity required, no written consent required.

Myth: Mothers requesting formula will be subject to a lecture from the nurse.

Fact: The City’s new initiative does not set a requirement that mothers asking for formula receive a lecture or mandated talk. For the last three years, New York State Law under the Breastfeeding Bill of Rights, has required that mothers simply be provided accurate information on the benefits of breastfeeding. This requirement has not changed under the City’s new initiative.

What the original document said:

What do we tell our staff to do when mothers (families) request infant formula? 

While breastfeeding is healthier for both mothers and babies, staff must respect a mother’s infant feeding choice. Educating mothers and families about breastfeeding and providing encouragement and support, both prenatally and after birth, is the best way to ensure breastfeeding success in your hospital.

While in the hospital your staff can:
Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying.
Provide education and support to mothers who are experiencing difficulties.
If the mother still insists on receiving formula, document it in the chart along with the  reason and distribute only the amount of formula needed for the feeding.
Train staff in breastfeeding support (CLC, IBCLC) who can be available to assist new mothers at all times regardless of day, night or weekends.


Notice the difference in language and tone here. “Mothers can and always will be able to simply ask for formula…no medical reason or written consent needed….” versus ‘Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying…if the mother still insists on receiving formula, document it in the chart along with the reason and distribute only the amount of formula needed for the feeding.” We’re talking semantics here, but policy is all about semantics – and the “myth” sounds an awful lot like what was written in their initial, official FAQ literature. Obviously it does not state simplistically that moms will have to “convince a nurse” that there is a medical reason, or be “subject to a lecture”, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine that this will be what ends up happening when the policy enlists health care providers to “encourage” a mom who has already made a decision – for whatever personal reason – that she wants to supplement; I don’t think it’s overreacting to take umbrage at the terminology “if the mother still insists” or the fact that nurses are told to only give the amount of formula needed for that feeding. As BF without BS so eloquently put it:

But what does “Assess if breastfeeding is going well and encourage the mother to keep trying” actually mean in practice? If the mother says clearly “I don’t want to do this any more,” is the nurse required to keep urging her to continue? Where do you draw the line between support and nagging? The initiative gives us no clear answers. Certainly, the use of the word “insist” here is deeply problematic. My understanding is that a person only “insists” on doing something when they continue to state their need after having experienced a considerable amount of pressure to do the opposite.


What the new document says:

Myth: Latch on NYC is taking away and/or jeopardizing a woman’s right to choose how to feed her baby.

Fact: The initiative is designed to support mothers who decide to breastfeed. For those women, the program asks hospital staff to respect the mother’s wishes and refrain from supplementing her baby with formula (unless it becomes medically necessary or the mother changes her mind). It does not restrict the mother’s nursing options in any way – nor does it restrict access to formula for those who want it.

Myth: Formula will be forbidden in some fashion.

Fact: If a mother decides she wants to use formula (or a combination of formula and breastmilk), she will be supported in her decision and her baby will be given formula during the hospital stay. If a breastfeeding mother changes her mind or requests formula at any time, her baby will be given formula.


In the original document, considering there is no further instruction given on subsequent requests, I think it was fair fair to assume – or at least to fear – that a lecture and limited formula will be the protocol for each and every feeding. It would have been easy enough for the authors of this document to add “Once it has been established that the mother has made an informed decision to formula feed, she should be given formula without further questioning, upon request” or even better, “a supply of ready-to-feed, pre-sterilized bottles and nipples should be left in her room for feedings.” As a formula feeding mother, that is what  ”not restrict(ing) the mother’s nursing options in any way “ and not “restrict(ing) access to formula for those who want it” means.


What the new document says:

Myth: Positive benefits from breastfeeding are being overblown or aren’t true.

Fact: There is overwhelming evidence, supported by national and international health organizations, showing that breastfeeding produces better health outcomes for babies and mothers than formula. For mothers, breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Babies that are breastfed have a lower risk of ear, respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, as well as childhood asthma, than babies who are formula fed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just published new guidance to pediatricians in February 2012, reaffirming the evidence that the health benefits of breastfeeding over formula are clear: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full.pdf+html

What the “Initiative Description” (which is still available – for now – here) says:

Formula feeding markedly increases serious health risks for infants, including:

o 257% excess risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory infection

o 178% excess risk of diarrhea and vomiting o 100% excess risk of acute ear infections

o 67% excess risk of asthma for infants with a family history of asthma (35% for infants with no family history of asthma)


Again, the language here is markedly different. The spin doctors who have performed surgery on this document are skilled; I’ll give them that. I don’t think most of us would argue that there have been “better health outcomes” reported for breastfed babies; it’s the inflated representation of the statistics that we found misleading – a “100% excess risk of acute ear infections” sounds like formula fed babies have a 100% greater chance of getting ear infections to the untrained ear, and most of the NY public probably doesn’t have an advanced understanding of statistics.  But that’s almost irrelevant. The more important point here is that neither of these passages addresses the concerns that scholars like Joan Wolf have brought up, or the writers who have used her work to illustrate their essays: concerns like the confusion of correlation and causation, and the inherent flaws in breastfeeding studies, which make these statistics (even in their non-puffed-up form) questionable. Where’s the acknowledgment that even the literature used to support these claims has a clear warning that these very issues need to be addressed?

As I stated in my original post on Latch On NYC, I think it is a positive thing to support breastfeeding by not shoving formula in a mother’s face at the first sign of breastfeeding challenges. I think it’s wonderful to offer more lactation support, and to encourage rooming in, and not insist on formula supplementation unless it is medically indicated.  But this is not  all that Latch On NYC, as initially put forth to the public, is doing. Notice that there has not been the sort of outrage we’ve seen regarding this initiative towards any other Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative in the country. This outrage has come from breastfeeding moms and formula feeding moms alike. It has come from Democrats and Republicans and Independents. It has come from people who don’t even have children, nor plan to. There was a reason for this outrage, and I think it is unspeakably rotten for the mayor’s office to perform this rather amateur feat of smoke and mirrors to make it look like the vast majority that disapprove of this act are either anti-breastfeeding or ignorant.

Mayor Bloomberg, I hope that the scarier aspects of this initiative have been erased along with the document that outlined them. I’d much rather have the expectant mother of NYC be spared from injustices than be “right” about what I feared regarding this policy. But I would implore you to come clean about how this all went down; to allow this initiative to start out on the right foot. It will not help raise breastfeeding rates to have women going into    NYC labor and delivery suites with their cockles up, ready for battle. There are elements of this plan which should be rightly celebrated, and you have essentially rendered that impossible by allowing for such dirty warfare. Those of us who raged against the original plan are not a bunch of uneducated militants who work for the formula companies. We are mothers, daughters, and concerned sisters, some of whom have experienced the sting of breastfeeding “failure” on a personal level, and others who have studied this discourse and its historical relevance at length, and simply feel that there are better ways to support breastfeeding than to frame formula as the enemy. I beg you to sit down with some of us and listen to what we have to say, and at the very least, make the original FAQ PDF reappear. It won’t require magic, just the small bit of courage it takes to admit you were wrong and promise to try better next time. We are all trying to win the same war (better support for new moms, and healthier babies for NYC and the country at large), so let’s not get ourselves caught up in friendly fire…okay?


Suzanne Barston, FearlessFormulaFeeder.com


Fun and games with Kaiser’s new breastfeeding policy

This image was used in conjunction with this story, about how Kaiser Permanente (an American health system which prides itself on being Baby Friendly) is now promoting breastfeeding as a means to fight obesity.

For our first game, I’ll give you two guesses as to where I am heading with this one.

The article states that “The breastfeeding-obesity link is now recognized by key government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).” True dat, as they say. The LINK between reduced chance of obesity and breastfeeding is certainly recognized by the CDC and AAP (although last I checked, the AAP was not a “government agency”, but rather an independent association of pediatric physicians). But, um, a link is not a cause or cure. It’s a link.

The CDC’s own document on the breastfeeding/obesity link states:

…Breastfeeding is associated with a reduced odds of pediatric overweight; it also appears to have an inverse dose-response association with overweight (longer duration, less chance of overweight). While more research is needed, exclusive breastfeeding appears to have a stronger effect than combined breast and formula feeding, and the inverse association between breastfeeding and overweight appears to remain with increasing age of the child. The three meta-analyses reported in these review articles suggest a 15% to 30% reduction in odds of overweight from breastfeeding.

If you read the entire report, you’ll see that several of the studies in question reported a reduced risk of obesity with breastfeeding initiation – meaning that if women just breastfed in the hospital, there was less of a chance that the child would be overweight. And all studies were observational in nature, as the report authors go on to explain:

There are several possible explanations for why breastfeeding appears to reduce the risk for overweight, but conclusive evidence is not yet available. The studies presented in this brief are limited in that they are based on observational studies and cannot demonstrate causality. One possible explanation for why the literature indicates that breastfeeding reduces the risk of overweight is that the findings are not true but instead are the result of confounding. It may be that mothers who breastfeed choose a healthier lifestyle, including a healthy diet and adequate physical activity for themselves and their children. This healthier lifestyle could result in a spurious relationship between breastfeeding and reduced risk of overweight. The results of Arenz et al. and Owen et al.,however, suggest a true relationship between breastfeeding and reduced risk of overweight, because after adjusting for potential confounding variables, significant inverse associations remained. For example, Arenz et al.reported a significant adjusted OR of 0.78 (95% CI: 0.71, 0.85) among nine studies that adjusted for at least three of the following confounding or interacting factors: birth weight, parental overweight, parental smoking, dietary factors, physical activity, and socioeconomic status/parental education. Similarly, when Owen et al.30 conducted a subanalysis of six studies that controlled for possible lifestyle confounders, the significant inverse association between breastfeeding and pediatric overweight remained, but it was smaller than in the unadjusted analysis. While randomized clinical trials are required to adequately test this relationship, it is unethical to randomize infants to a group with no breastfeeding because of breastfeeding’s known health benefits…

Fair enough. But then the paper launches into a slew of hypotheses about why breastfeeding confers a protective effect against obesity (none of them proven, or even studied, in some cases) and continues with a lengthy discussion about how to improve breastfeeding rates. So what can we gather from this paper?

1. Breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of obesity.
2. We don’t know why.
3. Breastfeeding rates are low.

Hardly evidence-based proof that we should be promoting breastfeeding as a means of reducing obesity, and yet, here we are again, beating the same dead horse. Somebody should probably call PETA.

Time for the next game… going back to the image at the top of this post… can you spot the misleading or outright false claims?
First of all, breastfeeding does not “prevent” asthma. In fact, several studies (like this one and this one) have suggested that longer breastfeeding may increase the risk of asthma in babies whose mothers have the disease. One meta-study recommended that short-term breastfeeding (4-6 months) was optimal for asthma prevention, but that breastfeeding longer than that may have a reverse effect; another, published in 2011, “(did) not provide evidence that breast feeding is protective against wheezing illness in children aged 5 years and over.”
Breastfeeding also does not “prevent” postpartum depression; this particular claim is outright dangerous. If women believe that breastfeeding protects them from getting PPD, they may fail to seek treatment when symptoms arise. The only studies I’m aware of show an association between breastfeeding cessation and PPD; all this proves is that women who already are showing symptoms of PPD are more likely to quit breastfeeding (another plausible theory is that breastfeeding failure may be a risk factor for PPD).
I’m not sure how this image is being used, but it concerns me…. this is exactly how misleading information spirals out of control. If policymakers and physicians do not have the good sense to differentiate between “links” and causalities, what hope do we have for the general public having a decent understanding of what will impact our health?
Breastfeeding may be good for baby, and good for mom. But please, can we stop with the false advertising? It’s not fair for the formula companies to do it, but it’s just as unfair for the government or health authorities to make unsubstantiated claims. Maybe even worse – we are taught to be skeptical of big corporations, but most of us still have a blind faith that doctors and health organizations are 1) honest and 2) out for the common good. I still believe #2 but I am highly doubtful of #1. And I’d still prefer the truth, even if does make for a less convincing “sell”.

One more little postscript…. my friend J is exclusively breastfeeding, and is a member of Kaiser. Despite the fact that you can’t go two feet in a Kaiser hallway without seeing a breastfeeding promotion poster, she was recently prescribed an allergy medicine that killed her milk supply. She couldn’t understand why her son seemed fussier all of a sudden, until she tried pumping first thing in the morning (her son sleeps through the night, so she hadn’t nursed for over 6 hours and should have been full) and only got a few drips. When she called Kaiser to inform them of this development, they told her that since the meds she was given weren’t contraindicated for breastfeeding, they were deemed “safe” even though she was a nursing mom. She asked what was safe about not having enough milk to satisfy her baby, and the nurse on the phone told her that “she could always just give him formula.”
Interesting. I guess she can blame that nurse if her son is chubby at the age of 5, huh?
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