The biggest problem with the breastfeeding discourse has nothing to do with breastfeeding

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, it’s not.

As any journalist, blogger, or parenting-forum moderator can attest, merely mentioning the words “breastfeeding” or “formula feeding” will create controversy – or at least a comment thread that derails within the first three posts. It’s virtually impossible for someone not to feel offended. It happens on both sides of the debate; some breastfeeding advocates see red anytime a person writes favorably about formula, while some formula feeding mothers are guilty of taking it all too personally, and assuming that every positive aspect of breastfeeding is dig at their lack of lactation.

This bugs me, being someone who writes about this topic regularly, because it dilutes the conversation. We lose track of what we’re talking about, and lose the chance to understand, to evolve, to connect.

Of course, this problem is endemic to any hot-button parenting issue. Circumcision, sleep training, working vs. staying at home, vaccinations… But when it comes to breastfeeding, what I’m talking about goes far beyond the mommy war bullshit. We’ve apparently lost the ability to discuss anything to do with breastfeeding and formula without heaping layers of preconceived notions, philosophical ideals, and emotional reactions onto whatever’s being discussed. Even if the conversation takes place in a respected medical journal, the halls of a hospital, or a human rights nonprofit.

With that said, I want to make something clear: this post is not about breastfeeding. It is not about the benefits of breastfeeding. It is not about a woman’s right to breastfeed or formula feed. It is not about you, or me, or your sister-in-law. It’s about language, interpretation, and bias. If it helps, substitute the word “breastfeeding” for something less emotionally loaded. “Drinking coffee”. “Wearing palazzo pants.” Whatever.

In the past month, two stories popped up, buried so deep in the news that only someone who obsessively googles terms like “infant feeding” and “lactation” would have seen them. They were about studies showing negative associations with breastfeeding (see? Didn’t your heart start beating a bit faster? …Negative associations with palazzo pants. That’s better, right?) The first one found that longer durations of breastfeeding (past 12 months) were associated with higher rates of a specific form of breast cancer in Mexican and Mexican-American women. The evidence was based on subject recall of breastfeeding history, in a specific population. All I will say about the study itself is that it is one, isolated result; more research must be done before anyone can make proclamations about whether women of Mexican descent might want to wean after a year.

Which is basically what I say about every infant feeding study. These results do not prove a causal relationship. It would be patently false and extremely irresponsible to have headlines screeching “breastfeeding causes breast cancer!”

Luckily, there were no such headlines. The story didn’t receive much coverage in major news outlets, but here were the headlines I did find:

Breastfeeding May Increase Cancer Risk for Mexican-American Moms (http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/health/Breastfeeding–Cancer-Rules-May-Not-Apply-to-Some-226050001.html)

Lactation may be linked to aggressive cancer in Mexican women

http://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2013-10-01-lactation-linked-to-cancer-in-Mexican-women.aspx

Women of Mexican descent more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive form of breast cancer http://www.news-medical.net/news/20131002/Women-of-Mexican-descent-more-likely-to-be-diagnosed-with-aggressive-form-of-breast-cancer.aspx

Mexican Women’s Breast Cancer Risk Tied to Breast-Feeding? http://healthcare.utah.edu/womenshealth/healthlibrary/doc.php?type=6&id=680757

Notice all the qualifiers. May be linked. More likely. And my favorite example, the question mark at the end of the last headline.

Now, let’s compare these measured, accurate headlines with those that stemmed from similar studies (self-reported data, specific populations, single studies rather than meta-analyses) that showed a positive effect of breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding reduces cancer risk http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-88785/Breast-feeding-reduces-cancer-risk.html

Breastfeeding Cuts Breast Cancer Risk http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/news/20070417/breastfeeding-cuts-breast-cancer-risk

Study: Breastfeeding Decreases Cancer Risk http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9656285

Breastfeeding Protects Against Breast Cancer http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/08/10/us-breastfeeding-cancer-idUSTRE5795CZ20090810

Not one qualifier to be found.

But FFF, you’re arguing semantics, you say. Perhaps. But how can we argue that subliminal messages that come through the advertising of formula or bottles can so greatly affect a woman’s breastfeeding intention, and then argue that the language used in widely-read headlines doesn’t make an impact?

Not convinced? Let’s go beyond the headlines. The one quote from the lead researcher of the breastfeeding/cancer in Mexican women study used in the media was this:

“Our results are both puzzling and disconcerting because we do not want to give the wrong message about breastfeeding…If you treat breast cancer as one disease, breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and baby. That should not be dismissed.”

Puzzling? Disconcerting? Science needs to be free of bias. It’s perfectly acceptable to be “surprised” by findings, but “disconcerted”? And as for the point about “breast cancer as one disease“, this is not the sentiment expressed in the quotes from articles reporting a positive effect, many of which proudly extrapolate their specific findings and make sweeping statements about breastfeeding promotion:

Clearly, the researchers conclude, breastfeeding is associated with “multiple health benefits” for both mother and child…”That’s why we need supportive hospital policies, paid maternity leave, and workplace accommodations so that women can meet their breastfeeding goals…” (source: Reuters)

The same double standard popped up a few weeks later, when a study hit the news which found that babies breastfed longer than one year, as well as babies introduced to gluten after 6 months, had an increased risk for celiac disease. Again, hardly any media coverage; the one major outlet (Yahoo News) that covered it used the headline “Parent’s Feeding Choices May Raise Baby’s Risk for Celiac Disease“. Absolutely accurate headline, but no mention of breastfeeding. Granted, there were two findings that came from this study; both of which did involve a feeding “choice”. What I find interesting, though, is that whenever formula is associated with something negative – even if that particular finding is buried in a mess of other data – the headlines make sure to mention it. (Remember the arsenic-in-baby-formula scare of 2012?)

This study had many flaws. (Science of Mom has a great explanation of what these were over on her blog, if you’re interested.) But it didn’t have more flaws than 99% of the formula-is-risky studies which we are subjected to on a weekly basis, none of which are handled with the same degree of intelligence and moderation.

In Bottled Up, I discuss the problem of publication bias, and the professional death knell it is to report or support anything that detracts from the supreme perfection of breastfeeding. This is a bigger problem than one might believe – because if the end goal is to find ways to reduce disease and increase health in populations, we should be striving for information, not propaganda. And this is why I fight so hard to reframe how we discuss and promote breastfeeding – because if we are basing all of our support for the practice on science, then we run the risk of bastardizing – or at least “tweaking” – that science to justify our promotion.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. But when it comes to infant feeding science, the results are never just the results.

Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

The latest outrage in the breastfeeding advocacy world doesn’t have to do with dying children in resource poor nations, cialis or bogus “breastfeeding advice” hotlines run with the nefarious goal of undermining a mother’s goals. It’s not even about someone questioning the benefits of breastfeeding, or urging the government to rethink some of its public health messaging.

No, this week’s rage-fest is over a campaign asking women to pledge not to bully one another based on their parenting choices.

Sound silly? Well, according to a handful of well-respected bloggers, it’s about as silly as a car wreck. This is because the campaign is sponsored by Similac, a formula company, which has everything to gain by women feeling “empowered” to use their second-best (or fourth best, if we’re going by the WHO hierarchy) product in a world made less judgmental by a pledge such as this.

On a purely anti-capitalist, anti-marketing level , I understand why some may feel a little queasy about this campaign. I’ve seen some backlash against the Dove Real Beauty ads for the same reason – the message is great, but the fact that it was created by a group of advertising executives rather than a non-profit, purely altruistic group, sullies it. There’s an ad term for what Dove and Similac are doing – the “halo effect” – meaning that when you use the product, you’ll have positive, do-gooder type feelings about it. Coke’s done it, too. (Remember that catchy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle? Halo effect, right there.)

I assume this is what was behind tweets I came across today suggesting that formula companies have no place talking about parenting issues. My counter argument to this is that many of us formula feeders feel abandoned by the parenting gurus (paging Dr. Sears) and in some cases, even our own pediatricians – the message we receive is that if we’re formula feeding, we’re pretty much a lost cause. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled that a formula company stepped up to fill this gap, I think we need to think a little more critically about why the gap was there in the first place.

For the record, with this particular campaign, Similac isn’t giving parenting advice, but rather advocating for an end to mother-to-mother judgment. More of an anti-bullying campaign than anything about parenting issues. Which is probably why they have Michele Borba as one of the spokespeople – she’s a well-known expert on bullying as well as parenting issues, but she barely deals with the infant/toddler set. For that matter, I don’t think babies are mentioned at all in the campaign literature –most of it has to do with embracing your parenting choices and not allowing other people to make you feel less-than.

But I’m not even all that interested in discussing the campaign itself – I’m more concerned with the response to it. Comments I’ve seen; articles I’ve read from some folks I have utmost respect for, but whom I feel really missed the mark on this one. Some of these arguments include: Similac has no right to talk about mommy judgment because formula feeding shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice; the bloggers who came on board to support the campaign are sell-outs or shills for Big Forma; and that the campaign is one big booby trap.

In a thought-provoking and controversial NY Times Motherlode column, KJ Dell’Antonia quotes Kimberly Sears Allers, who maintains that the Strong Moms Empowerment campaign is faulty because formula feeding is a public health issue, not a personal choice:

One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. … And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.

Admittedly, I’m taking major poetic license here, but my take-away from Allers’ post was that we can’t not judge other moms for doing something which puts babies at risk. KJ’s own argument is more nuanced and balanced; she suggests that this whole conversation has become too personal, and the “judgment” rhetoric just dilutes the real issues.

I agree with KJ, actually – it’s a point I’ve made myself, in my own somewhat pissy rants about how the only anti-breastfeeding-promotion opinions we hear come in the form of personal stories (which are important in their own right – don’t get me wrong – but hardly a match against scientific studies and “fact”-driven articles). But making things “less personal” doesn’t just mean that every blog post discussing breastfeeding must stop devolving into a who-had-it-harder string of comments. The onus can’t purely be on those whose choices are being questioned to buck up and be “strong”. If we’re going to make it less personal, than breastfeeding advocates cannot be in charge of conducting research on infant feeding. We need to ensure that voices from both sides are heard, so that formula feeding mothers don’t need to sit in awkward, shameful silence while the food that so beautifully nourishes their infants is compared to tobacco, lest they be accused of “taking things so personally”.  And outlets like the New York Times need to post intellectually-driven or research-based pieces from the “other” perspective, rather than just personal stories of breastfeeding failure, so that the conversation isn’t so one-sided.

But I think, in some ways, KJ’s point gets convoluted by Allers’ quote. It can’t not be personal, when a woman’s decision to formula feed is being equated to a public health issue. This is where the misinterpretation of risk within the breastfeeding canon is problematic; it is where people like Joan Wolf are so vitally important. And yet, Joan Wolf can’t participate in the conversation because it has become so personal: her assessment of the literature is brushed off as anti-breastfeeding, lost in the fervor of those who fear that discussing breastmilk as anything less than a miraculous and perfect substance, and breastfeeding as anything less than a moral imperative, will negate their admirable efforts to normalize what should be a human right.

The other common refrain in the past few days is that formula feeding mothers should be offended by this campaign. I’m crying foul. First of all, I take issue with breastfeeding advocates speaking for me – someone who felt completely ousted, chastised, and disenfranchised from their community, and their ideal of good mothering. Just like I will never know the hot rage felt by a nursing mom who is asked to leave a restaurant, someone who has a fundamental belief that breast is best will never know what it feels like to be told that your maternal instinct is faulty, due to susceptibility to marketing, stupidity, selfishness, or some combination of the three.  To hear a company which created a product that nurtured my babies echoing the same sentiments I’ve been preaching for years – that the judgment must stop; that moms need to stop fighting each other and work together for better parenting rights; that women need to stop engaging in sorority-level hazing in order to wear the label of “Good Mommy/Good Radical Feminist/Strong Woman – makes me happy. I don’t feel preyed upon; I am well aware that they are hoping to sell more formula, and you know what? If I had to decide between a brand that is marketing to breastfeeding moms and one that is finally trying to appeal to its actual audience, I’d probably choose the latter.

Someone commented on the NYT article that it would’ve been nice if this campaign came from an individual or group without profit-driven motives. Spoiler alert: that would be me. That would be Bottle Babies. We’re out there, doing this. But most people aren’t aware of us – we each top out at about 3k Facebook followers, opposed to the popular breastfeeding blogger-activists, who are all in the 200k range or higher (some of whom, incidentally, could benefit from a pledge not to bully other moms. Just sayin’.)  We have nothing behind us – no advertising, no sponsors. No money. It’s slow going, trying to make a dent, attempting to create change in a positive and real and measured way. We waste a lot of time defending ourselves against accusations of working for the formula companies; of being anti-breastfeeding; of being uninformed and defensive.  And trying to run our ad-free websites and blogs and attend conference on our own dime and BE HEARD when there are so many more powerful, louder people out there. I realize this sounds like a whiny me-me-me rant, but I’m trying to paint a picture here – because it helps explains why I’m okay with the Similac campaign. Until the indie, unsponsored voices are able to reach the masses, I’m just happy that someone can. I’m happy that women who are feeling judged and guilty and embarrassed about their choices, who are forced to read “Breast is Best” every time they see a formula ad, or open a can of food for their baby, can finally have an opportunity to feel good about the product they are using. That for once, we can feel like part of the sorority – part of the “empowered” group – even if it’s all manufactured and for profit, even if it’s bullshit.  It’s not even about the cheesy “empowerment” pledge – it’s about seeing a formula company treat formula feeding as something matter-a-fact, rather than constantly comparing itself to breastmilk, and in a more subtle and unintentional way, comparing formula feeding mothers to breastfeeding mothers. It’s about being able to feel okay about the way a formula company is operating, rather than cringing at how they are sending free samples to moms intending on breastfeeding (rather than those of us who’ve filled out the damn internet form 300 times and never received a single coupon, but I digress) or marketing some asinine product (like the company in question, with its new “formula for supplementation”. Jesus, Similac. I’m wasting time defending you and then you pull something like this? For real?)

Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. And if you think it’s sad that we are so desperate for acceptance and celebration that we are willing to get into bed with a formula company that thinks of us like an easy booty call, I’d recommend taking a long, hard look at yourself: at the comments you make; the Facebook posts you share; the policies you write; the initiatives you implement; the articles you publish.

Because yes, it is sad. It is sad that Similac has been able to capitalize on this need. It is sad that there is the need to capitalize on. And it’s sad that those who have created that need are refusing to see how implicit they are in the development of such a sad situation.

It’s just sad.

 

Dirty Milk

FFF Sarah, who is currently trying to induce lactation for her upcoming adoption, emailed me this afternoon with an interesting question:

So, I’m pumping all of this crap into my body in an attempt to see if I’m able to lactate.

Today, I was telling my husband why I buy x-type of dairy milk (b/c it doesn’t have rBGH)…I read him this tidbit from the dairy’s page:

rBGH is “recombinant bovine growth hormone” and also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). Developed by Monsanto Corporation, rBGH is an artificial hormone that causes cows to artificially increase milk production.

We love our cows and believe that pure, natural milk tastes best and is healthiest for you. Here at Brown’s, our cows are not treated with artificial growth hormones like rBGH.

He said…”um…isn’t that what you’re doing? Taking stuff to artificially increase milk production? How is that good for a kid then?” I said I thought the ingredients were better, but honestly…I don’t know. Is it better? Do we know the danger of Reglan or Domperidone or Fenugreek or Blessed Thistle or any of the other crap we take in order to make milk or more milk for our babies?

Honestly, I had no idea how to answer this; however, I thought it was one of the most interesting questions I’d ever been asked. Even the mere concept of rBGH-free milk is worth talking about, and I can’t believe I’ve never thought about it before. Of course, we’ve discussed the fact that breastmilk can be a veritable smorgasboard of chemicals; in fact, scientists use this particular bodily substance for bio-monitoring (a way of measuring how many toxins are being stored in the human body). Typically, this concern is squashed by folks telling us not to worry, breastmilk is so amazing that it counteracts or cancels out all the bad stuff, or yelling at us not to peek at the man behind the curtain, like the titular dude in Wizard of Oz. (Read this article from Mothering.com to gain a frustrating, bang-your-head-against-the-wall understanding of why some breastfeeding advocates are fighting the trend of using breastmilk in bio-monitoring.)

So, isn’t it kind of funny that everyone is so concerned with the mercury in fish; the hormones in beef and milk… and not the food our own bodies produce?

There is ample proof that what we eat, breathe and absorb goes through our breastmilk. In fact, the NRDC has an entire website dedicated to the chemicals present in breastmilk, and they admit that “infant formula contains far lower quantities of dioxins, PCBs and organochlorine pesticides than breastmilk”. Of course, they go on to assure mothers that “formula has serious drawbacks that tip the scale against it”, and then list all the “risks” we have discussed on this blog, time and time again. The chemical contamination dangers they cite pertaining to formula are “contamination with substances such as broken glass, fragments of metal and salmonella and other bacteria. The fungal toxin aflatoxin has also been detected in some commercial formulas. Although detected levels were very low, this toxin is known to cause cancer and is not present in breast milk. Infant formulas also may contain excessive levels of metals, including aluminum, manganese, cadmium and lead.” However, many of these contaminants are avoidable if we could improve manufacturing processes; the first few listed, when discovered, led to recalls.

The important message here should not be choose formula over breastmilk, or vice versa. It should be, let’s all become more aware of the chemicals our babies are exposed to. Formula is a product; if we want to discuss the chemical contaminants in formula, we can address manufacturing processes, corporate responsibility, quality assurances, ingredient sources, etc. If we want to discuss the chemical contaminants in breastmilk… well, chances are we won’t be discussing that, because its tantamount to yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. Us girls are, like, panicky and hysterical, dontcha know?

Back to the original question which spawned this post, though. It’s one thing to worry about chemicals we have no real control over; quite another to discuss intentionally ingesting something potentially harmful to increase milk supply or induce lactation in the name of Liquid Gold. But could Reglan, Domperidone, Fenugreek, or Blessed Thistle really be harmful? Doctors prescribe them for nursing women all the time, and these folks would never prescribe something that they don’t know 100% for certain won’t harm a baby, right?

(Pause for diabolical laughter…)

Fenugreek and Blessed Thistle are probably the least concerning of these substances, as they are herbal remedies. However, while NIH’s Medline Plus cites “increasing breastmilk quantities” as one of Blessed Thistle’s uses, they also warn, “Don’t take blessed thistle by mouth if you are pregnant. There is some evidence that it might not be safe during pregnancy. It’s also best to avoid blessed thistle if you are breast-feeding. Not enough is known about the safety of this product” and list “irritat(ion of) the stomach and intestines” as a possible side effect. As for Fenugreek, Kellymom warns that while “(m)ost of the time, baby is unaffected by mom’s use of fenugreek (except that more milk is usually available)”, sometimes “baby will smell like maple syrup…some moms have noticed that baby is fussy and/or has green, watery stools when mom is taking fenugreek and the symptoms go away when mom discontinues the fenugreek. Fenugreek can cause GI symptoms in mom (upset stomach, diarrhea), so it’s possible for it to cause GI symptoms in baby too.” A search on WebMD’s database found that “(s)ome reports have linked fenugreek tea to loss of consciousness in children”.

(I feel I should interject here to remind everybody that just like everything else we discuss on here, we should look at these warnings in terms of relative risk. If you read the possible side effects on a bottle of Children’s Advil, it’s a hell of a lot scarier. I’m merely trying to illustrate a point, so bear with me, please, and don’t panic if you’ve been binge-drinking Fenugreek tea.)

Reglan and Domperidone carry more severe warnings. Reglan is one of those drugs that repeatedly come up on litigator’s websites (never a comforting sign), and it has been suggested that it can cause a condition called Tardive Dyskinesia. As one of the litigators explains, “Before Reglan was released, the FDA only approved its use for 12 weeks at a time, which means that women who are breastfeeding are at an even higher risk for developing TD because of the timeframe spent breastfeeding.” (Ironically, I found a really great opinion piece about the relative risks of Reglan on another of these lawyer sites. Go figure.) Perhaps a more real-world concern – and definitely one that worries me a great deal, what with PPD being such a real threat to new moms – Reglan is also linked with depression.

Domperidone, a drug typically used for cancer patients or those with gastrointestinal issues, does seem to be a safer bet, although on a UK site detailing the prescription use of Domperidone, it clearly states that “this medicine passes into breast milk in very small amounts that are not expected to be harmful to a nursing infant. However, the medicine is not recommended for use in women who are breastfeeding unless the potential benefit to the mother outweighs any risks to the nursing infant. Seek medical advice from your doctor.” If that doctor happens to be breastfeeding guru Jack Newman, you’ll be reassured that it is indeed safe (“Worldwide experience with domperidone over at least two decades suggests that long-term side effects also are rare. Some of the mothers in our clinic, breastfeeding adopted babies, have been on the medication for 18 months without any apparent side effects…patients using domperidone for stomach disorders may be on it for many years. I hope you won’t need domperidone for very long, but if it’s necessary and helpful, stay on it,” he breezily suggests, adding links to back him up (nearly all of which are dead links, btw, save for one study which simply proves that Domperidone increases milk supply. Sort of a moot point, don’t you think?)

If a mom needed to take either of these drugs for a medical condition, I would think the benefits absolutely outweigh the risks. Aside from the depression risk, neither seems to be that scary, especially when you consider Reglan was discussed as a potential therapy when my infant daughter was suspected to have delayed gastric emptying (so one would hope it isn’t all that toxic to babies).

But we’re talking about selectively consuming these drugs in order to do something which is often marketed to women as the “natural” choice, the “biological norm”. If a woman wants to breastfeed, I would totally understand her desire to try these drugs, and more power to her. If a woman feels like she has to breastfeed, and has to take these medications in order to fulfill her biological and maternal responsibilities, that’s another story. And regardless, let’s stop the hypocrisy and ignorance so prevalent in the way we view and discuss breastmilk. If it is full of chemicals, the answer is obviously not to discourage breastfeeding, but shouldn’t it also be obvious that we can’t ignore the problem? Likewise, if someone has to take medication in order to breastfeed, we need to support her in her goals in whatever way we can, but we also need to ensure that she has adequate research on her side that proves she is not putting herself or her baby at risk.

Breastmilk, left to its own devices, is one of the most amazing and purest foods in the universe. Unfortunately, we live in a time when pretty much nothing has been left to its own devices. Nobody is saying that breastfeeding isn’t worth it, but in the world we currently inhabit, I don’t think we should view breastmilk as unadulterated, absolute perfection. It can be corrupted, like any biological substance.

So, FFF Sarah’s husband… I’m not sure what the answer to your question is, exactly. But I can tell you that while writing this, this image kept running through my head of one of those “Not treated with rBST!” messages stamped on a nursing bra. Thanks for that, buddy.

Formula feeding in disaster situations: Is there a dose of reality in your emegency kit?

I hope there is a correlation between formula feeding and developing a good bullshit meter, because guys – you all need one to survive what’s going on in the world of infant feeding.

Someone emailed me today about emergency preparedness. She was in the process of weaning, after an extremely difficult struggle with breastfeeding and an emotionally draining decision to stop the madness. There were storms where she lived, and she got to thinking that in the case of emergency, she’d need formula. So she did what any educated, concerned, modern mother would do: she googled. And instead of finding practical information on what should be in a formula feeding parent’s emergency preparedness kit, she found endless supplies of breast-is-best admonishments.

Her email could not have come at a more opportune time, because later in the day, I came across a series of Tweets about a “new study” outlining the specifics of emergency preparedness for both breastfeeding and formula feeding moms. The tweets linked to articles alluding to this paper from the International Breastfeeding Journal (surprising, isn’t it?), which the media presented as a “study” about how dangerous it is to be a formula fed baby in a disaster, even in a developed country.

Erm, no.

The “study” is actually a paper talking about the stuff mothers should have in stock in case of emergency. Now, it’s perfectly understandable that breastfeeding is far more ideal than formula feeding in emergency situations. Formula feeding in times of disaster, especially when water and supplies are scarce, is terribly difficult. But the way that this paper presents these facts is highly offensive, as it reads like a bad joke: What do formula feeding moms need in disasters? $500 worth of gasoline, formula, bottled water, cleaning supplies, a tool kit, knife, and Davy Crockett. What do breastfeeding moms need? Diapers and wipes.

There’s truth to this, of course. The abstract states that “Emergency management authorities should provide those who care for infants with accurate and detailed information on the supplies necessary to care for them in an emergency, distinguishing between the needs of breastfed infants and the needs of formula fed infants.” Fair enough… I agree that it is vitally important that parents and emergency workers know how to prepare and provide safe formula to babies.

Going back to that bullshit meter, though, mine was registering a 9/10 for this “study”. As early on as the introduction, the authors reveal their bias:

“In an emergency situation, infants who are exclusively breastfed have their health and well being protected by the food, water and immune factors provided by breast milk. Breastfeeding also mitigates physiological responses to stress in both infants and their mothers, helping them to cope with the stress of being caught up in an emergency situation… mothers who are exclusively breastfeeding are able to continue to provide food to their infants regardless of the stress they might be experiencing and their own access to food.”

Based on WHAT? They do not cite any studies for the latter claim; as for the one about breastfeeding mitigating stress, the only citation is an e-pub by one of the same authors as this study, in a journal called “Disasters.” I’ll have to track it down, because I’m curious what evidence they have for this dubious statement. Frankly, knowing the trouble most American women have initiating breastfeeding successfully, I kind of doubt a mom with a 5-week-old would find breastfeeding less stressful than trying to prepare formula safely (even if she had to use a knife and liquid petroleum gas, as this paper suggests).

As for the assertion that a mom can produce adequate milk no matter if her own food supply is insufficient or if she is under extreme stress, I again cry bullshit. What about this study, which shows that stress hinders letdown? Or this one, which talks about the effect of dehydration on lactating mothers? (Let me not the scarcity of studies on maternal stores… lots of them on goats, but not so much on human females. Doesn’t seem to matter if the mom drops dead from malnutrition or dehydration as long as the baby is getting enough, apparently.)

Then, the authors begin to delve into what appears to be their real agenda – discouraging formula donations, even from the formula companies themselves. They claim it’s because breastfeeding moms may receive the samples and sabotage their breastfeeding abilities (okay, I will concede that point, but what about the moms who are having trouble keeping up supply for the reasons above?), and also because it might be distributed to those who don’t know how to properly store and prepare it. Bullshit. If it’s between a baby starving to death or taking the risk that the parents don’t know you’re supposed to slice the top of the formula jar with a knife cooked to 100 degrees celsius, well, I think the answer is pretty obvious. A parent will either know this stuff because the message has been adequately imparted, or they won’t. Not having enough formula is not going to change that. The authors recommend that money be given to the “proper” organizations instead, who can correctly distribute the formula. No offense, but UNICEF has not impressed me with their knowledge or concern for formula feeding or non-breastfeeding Western women.

Speaking of non-breastfeeding Western women, I also wanted to know – especially in light of that Tweet about the Japan earthquake I talked about yesterday – what all of this hullabaloo was based on. The authors of this study cite a case (no citation, so I can assume this was something the authors heard word-of-mouth) from Katrina where a 3-week-old baby starved to death after being stranded on a roof with its mother and no formula. Apparently, the woman’s breasts were full of milk, but “initiating breastfeeding had not occured to her.”

Maybe that happened. If it did, that is horribly tragic. But we’re talking about disasters. Disasters. People do not think straight. That woman was stuck on a roof with a baby. Even if she had been successfully breastfeeding, god knows what would have happened. It seems really inhumane to me to take stories like this and turn them into cautionary tales against formula feeding.

The authors claim that “(t)he purpose of this paper is to detail the supplies needed by the caregivers of breastfed and formula fed infants in an emergency situation where essential services such as electricity and clean water supplies are unavailable and to discuss some of the practicalities of caring for infants in emergencies. The amounts provided for each emergency item are based on the clinical experience of the authors’, the author’s trial of the procedures, and the manufacturer’s instructions.” So again, I’m not convinced that any of this is based on actual empirical evidence, but rather assumptions and vague reasoning from people with an obvious axe to grind against formula feeding. Bullshit.

As for practical advice on what should be in your own emergency preparedness kit, I’ll work on it, peeps. Besides the normal emergency stuff (tons of bottled water, etc) I personally have a week’s worth of bottles of RTF formula, a few packs of disposable bottle liners and the bottles you use with them (you know, from that company that rhymes with Shmaytex), and about 10 nipples. I also have antibacterial wipes, in spades. That’s probably not the safest way to go about things, so I will look into the realities of what this paper recommends. Somehow, I don’t think it would cost $550 Australian dollars (about $569 USD) to ensure a formula fed baby’s safety for a week. But I’ll have to look at it more closely, because I seriously know nothing about disaster prep.

Until then, I’d be more concerned with honing your bullshit meter than worrying about a natural disaster. Statistically, it’s a fair assumption that you’ll be needing the former way more than the latter.

Guest Post: How Anti-Formula Propaganda Hurts Infants

The following is a guest post from FFF “Antigone”. I don’t know much about homemade formula; I am not convinced that someone feasibly couldn’t come up with a concoction on his/her own that would be nutritionally sound, provided they had the resources, education, and expertise needed to do so – but most of us don’t fulfill those three requirements, which is why I strongly advise using a commercial formula. However, this post isn’t about homemade formula, but a far more dangerous practice: using goats milk or raw milk instead of commercial breastmilk substitutes. Regardless of my (lack of) opinion on homemade formulas, I do know that plain old goats milk is never gonna cut it. I think Antigone makes some great points in this post, and she attacks the subject with the type of evidence-based, hard-science approach we love here on Fearless Formula Feeder. I hope it will provoke some worthwhile discussion….

-The FFF

****

How Anti-Formula Propaganda Harms Infants

by Antigone

Recently, I had first-hand evidence of my theory that anti-formula propaganda convinces women to resort to less safe alternatives when supplementation is necessary or breastfeeding is not possible. When militant lactivists tell women that formula is poison, or that it is equivalent to junk food because it is “processed” “man-made” and “full of chemicals,” don’t be surprised when children who NEED formula when breastfeeding is insufficient or impossible don’t receive it. Instead, they are subjected to arguably higher risks from one or more of the following:

(1) not getting enough to eat, period, because mom is afraid to supplement

(2) informally shared, untested breastmilk from strangers that could contain viruses, prescription medications, and other contaminants

(3) mom’s breastmilk, but with prescription drugs not proven to be safe while breastfeeding

(4) homemade formulas of questionable quality

(5) unaltered milk from other animals, usually goat or cow

A dangerous precedent is being set where women are being led to believe that formula is so caustic and vile a substance, that they must avoid it at all costs, and virtually anything more “natural” must be better. (Although how breastmilk laced with Effexor could be considered more natural is beyond me.) While medical organizations and professionals of any influence advise against replacing breastmilk with anything other than FDA-regulated infant formula, their voices are going unheard in the world of online lactivism and mommy advice. I recently logged on to my cloth diapering forum to find a thread about how raw goat milk would affect a two month old baby’s poop. I was shocked to find many women endorsing raw goat’s milk over formula for feeding newborns and young infants. Here are a few choice quotes (warning: your blood pressure will rise after reading these):

“I’m not willing to use formula since it is more likely to mess up her digestive system and interfere with the absorption of nutrients from breastmilk. Goats milk is much closer to human milk.”

“You say you can’t imagine a doctor sanctioning the use of goats milk in an infant, but I’m sure you have no problem imagining a doctor suggesting conventional formula – and have you read the side of a formula can lately? Not something I’m willing to put in my baby’s body.”

“from what I’ve heard goat’s milk beats formula in nutrition for supplementing…It’s supposed to be easier to digest than formula too.”

“I would give my newborn baby raw goat milk if I had the choice of pumping vs. raw goat milk.”

“I’m shocked by how many people recommend formula over raw goat’s milk. Shows how many people are still fooled by formula companies.”

“Formula is cow’s milk based (unless it is soy). It is loaded with chemicals and other garbage you can’t pronounce. I’d feel much safer with a natural alternative.”

“Raw milk (goat, cow, or sheep) is the next best thing to breastmilk. I get raw milk via cowshare, and it’s the only kind of milk that my daughter gets other than breastmilk.”

“Last I saw, goat’s milk is the closest thing to breastmilk that isn’t laden with chemically man-made vitamins, chemicals, and corn syrup”

“because when supplementing this is the flow chart to nutrition mom’s milk, donated breast milk, goats milk, other formula good job on knowing and deciding on goat milk.”

The Facts

The fact is that goat milk is nowhere near nutritionally comparable to breastmilk. Formula, on the other hand, is designed to mimic the macro- and micronutrient content of breastmilk. This means that formula has about as much protein, carbohydrate, and fat by volume, and similar quantities of vitamins and minerals. Goat milk, on the other hand contains nutrients more appropriate for a developing goat. This page contains a summary of major nutrients in human, cow, and goat milk, per 100 grams of milk, reprinted below. This data can also be verified, and more nutrients compared, by visiting the USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/search/

Fat (g)

Protein

(g)

Carbohydrate (g)

Calcium (mg)

Phosphorus

(mg)

Vitamin C

(mg)

Human Milk

4.0

1.1

9.5

33

14

5

Cow’s Milk

3.5

3.5

4.9

118

93

1

Goat’s Milk

4.0

3.2

4.6

128

106

1

If we accept human milk as the standard, the ideal food on which infant nutrition should be based, than goat’s milk, similar to cow’s milk, simply has the wrong nutrient balance. While the total fat content is the same, human milk has much more long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (such as DHA and ARA) when compared to goat or cow’s milk. Human milk contains .497 grams of polyunsaturated fatty acids per 100g of milk, compared to .149g in goat milk and .195g in cow milk (data from USDA link above). Polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to be important in brain development, which is why they are added to formula.

Goat and cow milk also notably contain triple the protein and less than half the carbohydrate of human milk. Excessive amounts of protein are known to strain kidneys, especially when combined with the excess sodium and other minerals which goat’s milk also contains. This article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discusses the serious effects of this dangerous combination:

“Goat’s milk contains 50 mg of sodium and 3.56 g of protein per 100 mL, approximately 3 times that in human milk (17 mg and 1.03 g per 100 mL, respectively).6 The estimated requirements of sodium and protein for infants <6 months old are 100 to 200 mg/day and 9 to 11 g/day, respectively.7 The infant described here was receiving 500 mg/day of sodium and 30 g/day of protein, with a total intake of 32 oz of goat’s milk per day. The immature kidneys in very young infants have difficulty handling the byproducts of foods with a high renal solute load.8 Sodium excretion capacity matures more slowly than glomerular filtration rate and does not attain full capacity until the second year of life.9 Therefore, infants fed fresh goat’s milk are at substantive risk for hypernatremia and azotemia, particularly in the face of dehydration (as in the case described here), which may in turn result in major central nervous system pathology, including diffuse encephalopathy, intraparenchymal hemorrhage, or thromboses10 as manifested in our patient.”

To put this in layman’s terms, hypernatremia is an excess of sodium compared to water in the blood, which appears as severe dehydration. Azotemia is excess waste in the blood due to the kidneys being overloaded and unable to perform their function adequately. These two in turn can lead to brain damage, brain bleeding, or blood clots. The article also observed that metabolic acidosis has been observed in infants fed undiluted goat’s milk. This is an increase in acid levels in the body thus low pH in the blood and tissues, which can lead to coma or death. This study also mentions the link with metabolic acidosis, and states that goat’s milk consumption can lead to cases that appear to be tyrosinaemia type 1, which is an excess of the amino acid tyrosine caused by a genetic inability to break it down. Goat’s milk can’t cause tyrosinaemia, since it is genetic, however the symptoms are similar: failure to thrive, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, increased bleeding, and liver and kidney failure.

In addition, Goat’s milk is also deficient in several nutrients when compared to breastmilk, most notably Vitamin C, Folic Acid, and Vitamin B12. In fact the term “goat’s milk anemia” was coined to describe cases in the 1920s and 30s in Europe of infants fed goat’s milk. It was more severe and appeared earlier than anemia found in infants who drink cow’s milk, most likely due to lower B12 than cow’s milk. This article from the Canadian Paediatric Society describes an infant presenting with severe anemia and a murmur due to a diet of exclusive goat’s milk:

“Goat’s milk is known to be deficient in vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and especially folate. Infants younger than six months of age need 65 μg/day of folate (the recommended daily allowance increases with age). Goat’s milk contains 6 μg/L of folate (breast milk and cow’s milk contain approximately 45 μg/L to 50 μg/L). The infant’s serum folate was less than 1.4 nmol/L (normal 7 nmol/L to 39.7 nmol/L), her serum vitamin B12 was 141 pmol/L (normal 200 pmol/L to 540 pmol/L) and her serum iron level was also low.”

Another issue is that many advocates of giving infants goat’s or cow’s milk also state that the milk must be raw to preserve nutrients. It’s well-documented, however, that unpasteurized milk can contain dangerous bacteria such as toxoplasmosis, brucellosis, and e.coli (link 1-scroll to page 6, link 2). Infants, with their weaker immune systems, are at much greater risk of serious illness or death from ingesting these bacteria.

Goat’s milk is clearly not a suitable replacement for breastmilk or formula. To express that formula is somehow less safe than goat’s milk, or raw goat’s milk at that, is absurd. The science does not support this. Goat’s milk may be “less processed” and “more natural” but that hardly advocates for it when less processing, in this case, makes it less nutritionally complete and less digestible. Even notable breastfeeding supporters such as Kellymom, La Leche League, and Dr. Sears also warn against feeding goat milk to infants as a replacement for formula. As Kellymom’s website states:

“While it’s true that whole goats milk (and whole cow’s milk) was commonly used prior to the advent of infant formulas it is also true that the infant mortality and morbidity rate during the times of such substitutions was very high.”

So why does there seem to be a large number of people with the misperception that formula is actually the worst option for breastmilk replacement? In recent years, breastfeeding advocacy has become more focused on using intensely negative, often hyperbolic language bashing formula. Convinced they can win more flies with vinegar, many lactivists use shame and fear to convince mothers that breastfeeding is the only acceptable option. What then, are women to do when breastfeeding fails, after being told that formula is inadequate, fake, unsafe junk? They look for an alternative. Unfortunately, the risks of these alternatives are not nearly as well-promoted as the so-called risks of formula. A widespread distrust of medical professionals and belief that a stranger on the internet will give better nutritional advice contributes to this problem.

Lactivists claim that their goal is to promote the health of infants and children. But when they say that mothers must breastfeed exclusively at all costs, that formula is poison and must be absolutely avoided, they act contrary to their stated goal. Infants could be seriously harmed in a myriad of ways by parents’ choice not to use formula when it is necessary. Not everyone can breastfeed, and not everyone should breastfeed. Formula is one of the most regulated products in existence. Is it perfect? No. Is it as good as breastmilk*? No. Could it be better? Sure. But let’s not mince words here: it is the only safe substitute for breastmilk. Period.

*from a healthy, well-nourished mother not taking harmful drugs of any kind, and assuming the infant in question is not allergic

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