Study says: Breastfeeding problems aren’t serious. And are probably your fault, anyway.

One of the most interesting interviews I did in my research for Bottled Up was with a physician who had studied breastfeeding-related neonatal hypernatremia (severe dehydration leading to electrolyte imbalance). We discussed the fact that these days, this condition is typically caught early and can be treated successfully. But the doctor also cautioned that while the prognosis wasn’t usually dire in terms of long-term health (thanks to modern medicine), we shouldn’t forget about the emotional and financial effects on the parents. He worried about a first time mom, trying to do the best for her child, who ends up seeing that baby hospitalized – sometimes for weeks- due to what she might perceive as her own failure to nourish him adequately.

I’ve been thinking about this interview since I read several articles yesterday, detailing a new study about the same condition. According to the Guardian (“Breastfeeding problems rarely lead to serious illness, study says“), a new paper on neonatal hypernatraemia found that “Very few babies become dehydrated and seriously ill because they are not getting enough milk from breastfeeding…Dr Sam Oddie and colleagues found only 62 cases from May 2009 to June 2010, a prevalence of seven in every 100,000 live births… the babies were admitted to hospital, mostly because of weight loss, and some were intravenously fed…However, all were discharged within two days to two weeks having gained weight and none had long-term damage.”

Seem like good news, right? Put on the Def Leopard, because we’re about to start headbanging.

Source: http://www.yaindie.com/2012/12/banging-your-head-against-wall-is-it.html

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #1: 

Okay. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but having a 2-week-old newborn in the hospital hooked up to an IV for a week or two isn’t considered serious? And as for long-term effects – these babies were born between 2009-2010. The study is not available online, so I don’t know what the details are in terms of how the researchers followed up with the subjects… but considering studies on breastfeeding and intelligence have tested kids at the age of 8, I think one could fairly say the jury is still out on this sample of 4 and 5-year-old kids. And how were they assessed in terms of long-term effects? Psychological? Emotional? Physical?

With all the focus on mother-child interaction in the first days, and the effect of fatty acids on brain development, the superiority of breastmilk in the first weeks… doesn’t it seem a little ironic that we’re so quick to dismiss a condition which a) separates parents from babies through NICU stays and b) starves/dehydrates a child in those same “fundamental” weeks?

I understand that we’re talking small numbers here – 7 in every 100, 000 is admittedly a reassuring statistic. But while we’re talking about that figure… what exactly does it mean?

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #2:

First, without access to the study, I can’t tell you if this statistic means 7 in 100,000 of ALL LIVE BIRTHS – meaning EBF, formula-fed and mixed-fed infants, inclusive. The UK has lower breastfeeding rates than many countries, so if this was the number of babies in all live births, it doesn’t mean anything substantial. What we need to know is the number of babies admitted who were exclusively breastfed before we can start making statements about breastfeeding, milk supply, and what needs to happen to avoid this risk.

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #3: 

Even if this study did look only at EBF babies, there are major limitations in what we can fairly assess from the data.  We can’t know how many women can adequately produce milk so that their babies aren’t at risk, because most people would supplement before it got to the point of hospitalization. What the researchers did discover is that the babies hospitalized could nearly all breastfeed successfully:

Almost every baby is capable of breastfeeding, Oddie said. “In only a few cases were there special features of the baby that made it likely that there would be a severe feeding problem. [One of the babies, for instance, was found to have a cleft palate.] Normally all babies can get established with breastfeeding with the right support.”

Again, I’m a little confused. If there were only a few cases of this condition, what exactly is a “few” of a few? Of the seven babies hospitalized in a group of 100,000, does that mean one of them had a “special feature” which created a feeding problem? Was it a statistically significant number?

Then, the Deputy Manager of UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative weighed in:

Anne Woods, deputy programme manager for Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI)…said the number of babies who could not feed was negligible and only a very small percentage – about 1% – of women would struggle to make enough milk. “The numbers who breastfeed in this country do not reflect the numbers who could breastfeed if they had effective support,” she said.

Where there are problems, she added, “it fundamentally boils down to the fact that the baby is not attached to the breast effectively. The whole of the baby’s mouth has to make contact and draw the breast tissue into the mouth.”

But because we have a bottle-feeding culture in the UK, she said, some women do not realise this and “try to bottle-feed with their breast”, so the baby takes only the nipple and does not get enough milk.

The other problem is when babies do not feed often enough. After a difficult labour or pain relief, the baby may be sleepy. There is also an expectation she said, that a baby will feed and then sleep.

Ah, right. It’s the mom’s fault. Who cares that this study proves – hell, even suggests – nothing about the true incidence of physiological lactation failure. The researchers are talking about the baby’s ability to feed, not the mother’s ability to produce milk. That doesn’t stop Anne Woods from hurling the 1% (the lowest number bandied about regarding lactation failure, by the way – she could’ve at least given us a break and used the higher end of the oft-cited 1-5% assumption figure) statistic at moms who’re already feeling like failures for landing their babies in the hospital. And of course, the mom probably can’t be bothered to feed as frequently as needed – not that it’s entirely her fault, since the formula companies have convinced her that her breast is actually…wait for it… a bottle!

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #4: 

I know, I’m being snarky. And I do appreciate that the lead researcher of this study, Sam Oddie, emphasized the need for better breastfeeding management and support. I’m fully on board with that. But I’m also concerned about what Dr. Oddie was saying back in 2009, when he embarked on his study:

Dr Sam Oddie, a consultant in the neonatal unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary, who is leading the study, said: ‘Once we understand the scale of the problem we can work out what to do about it – how to spot it, and how to act on it. But as far as I’m concerned the answer isn’t more formula feeding, but increased support for breastfeeding from the outset in the form of counsellors.” (Marie Claire, 2009).

I don’t disagree with him, necessarily, but going in to a study on hypernatraemia with a strong desire to avoid formula supplementation – even if that ended up being the best course of treatment – implies a certain degree of bias.

One could argue that there’s no harm in a study like this making the news; it will bring attention to those experiencing early breastfeeding problems and perhaps make medical professionals take them more seriously. But as we’ve seen so many times, these studies have a way of creeping into the breastfeeding canon and being misused as “truth” to back up future claims. I can already see Dr. Oddie’s quotes as being taken out of context, being used as “proof” that “all babies can breastfeed” and that the risk of inadequate feeding isn’t all that serious (so there’s never a need to supplement, even if your formula-pushing pediatrician tells you that there is).

Still think I’m overreacting? Here are the headlines from the other two major news sources covering the study:

Most mothers who struggle to breastfeed WILL be providing enough milk for their babies, say experts (The Daily Mail)

Dehydration risks from breastfeeding are ‘negligible’, study finds (The Telegraph)

Would you like me to move over and make a little space for you on the wall? Come on over. Bring some Metallica, and wear a helmet.

 

Read more about neonatal hypernatraemia:

http://fn.bmj.com/content/87/3/F158.full http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/116/3/e343.full

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The two headed chimera of infant feeding studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Introducing the Family-Friendly Hospital Initiative

My first experience with a baby friendly hospital was far from pleasant….because no one had really showed me how to attach, just pushed and shoved my breast, my nipples became blistered and bloody…As day 3 approached it was clear my son was having a few issues.  He was becoming jaundiced, he still hadn’t passed any sort of wee.  This was when the contradictory advice began.  One told me he was a lazy sucker and that I had to watch for Nutritive sucking, where his whole jaw was moving, all the dummy sucking was not getting him any milk.  Another midwife told me that was nonsense and any sucking was getting him milk.  One told me my latch was good, another told me it was rubbish.  It seemed with every shift change I got another piece of different advice.  I was more confused than I had ever been in my life and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  They had me constantly hooked up to the breast pump, hoping to encourage my milk in but I never got even a drop out…he had lost nearly 30% of his body weight in 3 days, they aim for 10% at the most.  I felt angry,  I had told them my baby was starving.  Any time I had asked for formula I was told it would affect my milk supply and refused…I had to sign a form allowing him to have the bottle.  He gulped it down and went straight to sleep.  The first time really since he had been born.  The next morning when with a new midwife when I asked for another formula top up I was given a spiel on how ridiculous it was to have given it too him in the first place and I would destroy any chance of ever having any milk.  When my husband asked which formula they recommended if we decided to go that way because he could see how thoroughly overwhelmed I was he was told they don’t recommend formula.  Those two bottles allowed his weight to go up enough however to allow us home after another night so we finally got out of there.  I left exhausted, nipples absolutely shredded, confused, overwhelmed and violated….Baby friendly maybe, mother friendly most definitely not. - Courtney

“My local hospital is “baby-friendly”…  My own opinion of this implementation is that it was distinctly “mother unfriendly” - to the point I’m still traumatized by what went on now and regularly cry myself to sleep over it all. My daughter came prematurely, was sent to NICU, while I was sent to the post-natal ward… I had a leaflet on breastfeeding slung at me, and when I pointed out it was a tad insensitive- I had a premature baby in an incubator not even on the same floor in the hospital as me, and I couldn’t do anything since she wasn’t even WITH me (none of the staff had broached expressing or pumping at this point) – I got snarled at that “breastfeeding is really important you know” and the nurse flounced off…After about a week and a half, when I was truly at the point of crumbling, when we’d made no progress at all with breastfeeding and latching, one wonderful nurse put her neck on the line and broached the taboo (bottles, formula and teats were very much the elephant in the room everyone was too scared to mention) and told me that basically I would be looking at extending our time in hospital by another 2-3 weeks in order to be able to go home breastfeeding… I asked to try her with some of this expressed milk in a bottle to see what she would take… From there she really turned the corner. However because of being “baby friendly” – the bottles, teats and formula were hidden away behind the nurses’ station (very similar to the NYC proposals) – you had to do the walk of shame, akin to being on the Weakest Link, to go and collect them… it was literally a matter of a few days from that first bottle feed to her being able to take her full feed requirements and maintain/gain weight and have her feeding tube removed – the hospital would have let me plod on in ignorance that this was possible to sacrifice my mental health on the altar of their baby friendly status quite happily. The prolonged stressful nature of our hospital stay has left me with an anxiety disorder requiring medication, sleep problems and I cry myself to sleep on many many nights over the trauma we went through – this is after counselling as well. I switched to formula feeding as my supply dwindled and my breast pump motor died in the end.” -F.T.

A colleague said something to me last week that really knocked me on my ass. She asked if I had lost my passion for this blog, and for the cause in general; she told me that FFF “wasn’t what it was” a year ago. I’ve reflected on this for the past 5 days, and I started wondering if maybe I was the Internet equivalent of an aging beauty queen, hanging out at the local cougar bar and wearing pants that were more appropriate for my 14-year-old daughter. It was a scary thought. (And a little too close to home, as I still shop in the Juniors department, on occasion.)

On further reflection though, I don’t think I’m old, or tired, or lacking passion – I’m just a little jaded. I’m jaded because I realize that blogs can only go so far; that the time has come to take FFF to the next level and begin forming concrete advocacy efforts and fighting for real, practical change that can lead to flesh-and-bones support, rather than just the virtual kind.

This advocacy will begin with an endeavor I am calling the Family Friendly Hospital Initiative (FFHI). I originally planned to call it the “Mother-Friendly” initiative since the mothers are the ones physically engaged in breastfeeding, but ultimately chose the name “Family Friendly” to reflect the fact that families are made up of not only babies and mothers, but also biological fathers, adoptive parents, gay and lesbian spouses, and siblings with their own specific needs. We need to approach all types of famiIies in a holistic manner, recognizing that the health, happiness and economic stability of the entire family is vitally important to emotional and physical health of a growing infant and to our society as a whole.

I plan to approach hospitals, local media, and government officials to encourage adoption of the FFHI, a program that can work in conjunction with the BFHI Ten Steps, taking the best parts of that program and clarifying the aspects that could potentially infringe on a woman’s right to choose how to use her body. I am going to fight, tooth and nail, for hospitals to start offering bottle-feeding classes, or if this isn’t a possibility, perhaps giving access to a hotline to connect new moms with trained peer advisers who can walk them through safe formula preparation, outline the best pumping and milk storage practices, offer suggestions to common formula concerns and complaints, and hopefully provide peer support groups which can meet, much like breastfeeding support groups, but for formula-feeding, pumping, tube feeding and combo-feeding mothers.

There is no reason that supporting and promoting breastfeeding has to mean punishing the women who either choose to formula feed, or end up doing so for any number of valid reasons. The Family Friendly Hospital Initiative will promote breastfeeding as the healthiest choice, but will frame it as a truly informed choice, giving concrete, real-world statistics in contexts that any parent can understand, not just the ones with a degree in epidemiology. It will adhere to practices shown to improve breastfeeding rates, but make the ultimate goal a healthy, fed baby and a confident, emotionally healthy mother and/or father. The FFHI will reach out to postpartum mental health professionals and organizations and attempt to make maternal postpartum health a significant priority. It will encourage researchers to engage in studies which will learn from women who are not breastfeeding, rather than dismissing them; studies which will make bottle-feeding (whether it be formula, donated milk, or expressed maternal milk) safer; studies which will help us determine how our societal evolution has affected breastfeeding, and how to merge a woman’s innate desire to feed her child naturally with the reality of an incredibly unnatural world.

Take the good….

“…Every nurse who came to check on us was extremely respectful. They all asked before touching me and gave great advice about how to get him latched and how to take care of myself while breast feeding. Once we were discharged, we received follow up care from community health nurses. They check on everyone by phone, but came to visit us in home after hearing about the number of times my son had been up to feed. They weighed him and provided a lot of encouragement. When the jaundice was getting worse, not better, it was a community health nurse who was also a lactation consultant who said, ‘How do you feel about formula supplementation?’” - Lisa

“Baby 3 was born in a baby friendly hospital and was my best experience.  The LC came in just to see how I was going to feed and offered support with breastfeeding or formula feeding.  She just wanted to see mommy and baby happy.  She even checked on me knowing full well my baby was receiving a bottle just to make sure she wasn’t having any issues with the formula.  I breastfeed baby girl enough for the colostrum like son 2- but I didn’t feel judged at the hospital at all- in fact I felt fully supported.”   -Betsy 

 

When I asked my Facebook followers to share their experiences of “baby friendly” hospitals, I was shocked – and not for the reasons you might think. I was expecting tales of shaming, mistreatment, and inferior assistance with the actual mechanics of breastfeeding. But instead, the majority of the stories posted on my Facebook wall were positive. “I went in planning to use formula. I was so nervous,” says Amy. “Every single person was supportive, did not say one single word about it, and several actually expressed relief for me! …They didn’t have much advice on stopping my milk but they tried. My pediatrician seemed thrilled too. I went in ready to defend and they were all SO fantastic.” Natalie reports that the “hospital staff were all very kind. Every time they asked if I was going to try breastfeeding, I would start with my big long explanation, and they’d stop me right away and say ‘it’s your choice, you don’t need to explain’”. A few readers had given birth in both baby-friendly establishments and hospitals that hadn’t adopted the initiative, and they gave much higher marks to the baby-friendly ones. Allowing babies to room in, experience skin-to-skin immediately after birth, and having more lactation consultants or breastfeeding-educated nurses on staff are changes most new mothers would applaud. Obviously, there are elements to the baby-friendly program that should be commended and implemented worldwide.

…But Leave the Bad

I delivered at a baby-friendly hospital. I had intended on giving breastfeeding a try but was not sure I wanted to do it long term…When I delivered, a nurse helped me initiate breastfeeding…He was not latching well, which I assumed the LC would have told me. I now found out that it is against their policy to use prosthetics (shield), which would most likely have saved our nursing relationship and helped my sleepy baby latch… They checked his bili levels and they were sky high. I told the night nurse she could feed him formula and I was fine with that. She fed him 25ml through a syringe. The next morning I was told the machine used to check the levels was malfunctioning and he was actually fine. The LC berated me for allowing my baby formula. After our release he became too tired to latch and would scream. The pediatrician told me I should supplement. I gave him a bottle, and he refused to nurse. By the next day, he had gained 4oz and changed color. I stopped after that for my own sanity and recovery. My experience wasn’t horrible at the hospital, but when I was looked down upon for allowing him formula I felt as though it wasn’t so much about me making a decision I thought was best, but them not being able to check off that ‘exclusively BF’ checkbox.” -Sara

“Because of my problems with (my first child) I was leaning towards formula but still wanted to attempt the breast or at least get the colostrom benefits.  When the lactation consultant came in, she was rude.  So rude.  I explained my troubles with my first son- where she informed me that the problems I experienced were impossible, she isn’t there to convince me to breastfeed, and I am sabotaging my efforts with son 2.  By the time she left the room, I was crying. Literally crying.  I told the nurse to get my son a bottle of formula so I would never need to see that woman again.  Turns out son 2 tongue sat back in his mouth a little too far and needed a preemie bottle nipple.  LC might have caught that and offered me a shield or something if she hadn’t been there to just berate the hell out of me. - Betsy 

Despite the numerous positive experiences voiced in this small sample, adopting procedures which focus on an end goal (having most babies exclusively breastfed upon discharge from the hospital) can lead some care providers to fall prey to human tendencies of fear, selfishness, and bias. It is evident that so much depends on the individual care providers and administrators of each hospital; the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) is based on the organization’s Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, which are meant to “promote, protect, and support breastfeeding”. Yet, the program is often simultaneously promoted as a way to improve maternity care in the United States, to bring hospital birthing to a more personalized, less sterile level. And while these two goals might seem to work in tandem, there’s too much left to interpretation in the Ten Steps to ensure that they really do. In fact, in some cases, it seems that the emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding for the good of the babies is subjugating the needs, autonomy, responsibility, rights and desires of the mothers.

Still, I do believe that things must change in our hospital system so that women will be supported in their efforts to breastfeed. New mothers shouldn’t be sabotaged or bullied, no matter if the substance in question is formula or breastmilk. And the early days of breastfeeding are incredibly vital – both physically and emotionally. I simply want to make sure that women are supported in both the former and the latter respects.

Engage the professionals

“My son was born in a “baby-friendly” hospital. In theory, it’s all very good and helpful, but I feel the nurses need to be given a reminder about personal boundaries and coherent advice. I was pretty upset that they wouldn’t let my husband hold him after the birth and that they manhandled my breasts (without asking first) to try to painfully extract some colostrum (which I didn’t have at all) because my son apparently needed to have some *right now*. I was exhausted and just wanted to be left alone. I wanted my husband to take the baby so I could sleep. There was a lot of manhandling and nipple-pinching during the next feeding attempts, which was very painful and disturbing…Also, my son slept for most of his 48-hours hospital stay. I went to the nurses station to ask them if I should wake him to feed him and I was told “no”, but when I was discharged, a nurse scolded me for not attempting to nurse every 3 hours. I felt confused and misdirected. I was happy to leave!”  -Roxane

I believe that most people go into the medical field – a care profession – to help others. We cannot ask nurses and physicians – professionals who carry the credo do no harm close to their hearts – to subjugate the needs of one patient for that of another. We should be asking these professionals to work with us to improve infant feeding practices, rather than demanding they behave in certain ways (ways that may be in direct conflict to their instincts as caregivers) in order to meet government goals. Therefore, I hope that medical professionals – especially maternity care specialists – will join me in urging the adoption of this initiative. Perhaps it will also be more palatable to hospitals who have shied away from becoming baby-friendly; if the goal is to end practices which sabotage breastfeeding, it shouldn’t matter whether we do it via WHO/UNICEF-endorsed methods or our own modified American version.

As I’ve been researching the BFHI, another realization I’ve had is that despite all intentions, women are still being given atrocious advice in baby-friendly hospitals- advice that would make most experienced LC’s cringe. A friend recently gave birth at a Kaiser hospital here in California, one that prides itself on being Baby Friendly. She told me the most curious tale of how, when her newborn didn’t latch right away (and I’m talking like 3 minutes into the first skin-to-skin, right after the cord had been cut), a nurse dribbled formula all over my friend’s chest, apparently to encourage the baby to latch. Considering step 6 of the BFHI is “Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated” and my friend’s baby was born perfectly healthy, I have no flipping idea why this would have been done.

I suspect that when the focus is solely on having women leave the hospital breastfeeding exclusively, rather than on encouraging long-lasting, healthy, happy breastfeeding dyads, bizarre and contradictory actions will continue to occur. By talking with healthcare professionals rather than treating them as the enemy, or assuming they are all pawns for the formula industry, we can hopefully come up with better protocols that lead to better outcomes overall.

Encourage individualized patient care

“My baby latched perfectly and all was great. Except that I hated it. No matter what the hospital does, I believe women will quit breastfeeding for all kinds of reasons. I hate calling it “succeeding” at breastfeeding because I think success is determined by a happy healthy baby and mom, which isn’t always breastfeeding.” - Erin

“I have 2 sons, now 2 and 4.  I also have PCOS and hypoplastic breasts.  I tried to breastfeed my first, didn’t work.  Didn’t even try with the second (with the blessing of the same LC who was at the same hospital and remembered me!  Took one look at me and said, “nope, don’t bother.”).  By the time I had my 2nd child, the hospital had become “breast friendly”, in their words.  So they were not giving away the formula bags and samples any longer.  Nurses told me that they actually had to THROW THEM AWAY.  Since I had been expecting these items, I was shocked to hear this.  When the director of nursing stopped by to take a little survey on my stay, I really let her have it.  “But we’re BREAST FRIENDLY” she kept repeating.  My response?  ’Well guess what honey, my breasts aren’t very friendly, and they don’t make milk’”.-Rebecca

I actually believe that most of the 10 Steps outlined on the BFHI website are perfect for encouraging breastfeeding, and seem to reflect the research that has been published on this issue. But I think that there is a fundamental flaw in the program: it does not give sufficient attention to the needs of bottle-feeding parents. Mothers have different birth experiences, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, different emotional makeups, different physical impediments. Mothers are different. Treating all American mothers as one homogeneous, uniformly-lactating group is a recipe for disaster. There’s a movement afoot to change the face of maternity care in this country – homebirths, or hospital births assisted by doulas or performed by midwives are becoming more popular. We seem to be having two parallel conversations – one that says “treat me like an individual, not as a medical case to be managed” when it comes to birth, and one that begs for overly-monitored, medicalized, one-size-fits-all treatment when it comes to breastfeeding.

There is no reason we can’t follow most of the BFHI steps, and still provide resources, emotionally neutral education, and equal support for those who opt to combo feed or formula feed.

Education, Not Indoctrination

“No discussion of challenges in our BFing class, just all the joys and benefits. Frankly, I think it’s much better to discuss potential problems even if they affect only 10% or so of mother-baby pairs. Knowledge is power, and you aren’t blindsided by pressure or bullying or confusion either way in the days immediately after birth if you know what to expect. I seriously don’t understand why anyone would think it wasn’t important to discuss potential problems. It would be so much better for getting people to know when to get help.” -Sumita

“In fairness breast feeding wasn’t really covered either – it was more here are the benefits this is why you should – and this is briefly how it’s done- we will show you when you have your baby. Formula wasn’t even mentioned at all. - Kate 

I took a breast feeding class at the baby friendly hospital I have birth in. They never talked about any problems that could come up. Only the benefits and good things about breast feeding. I spoke to a nurse while I was in the hospital and asked her how come I wasn’t told about flat nipples, latching issues and such and she said that they don’t discuss negative things in the breast feeding class so that women aren’t discouraged. In my case it would have been very helpful to know about issues like that because it would have avoided me getting depressed about not being able to breast feed my premature baby.” -Rosella

“We are set up for failure and every real life mom I know knows it. SO many women I talk to NOW commiserate with how hard it can be, but all the literature, all the websites give such an opposite impression. Like, why WOULDN’T you breastfeed if its beautiful, bonding and almost everyone can do it? If everything they said was true, everyone WOULD breastfeed. But its not true for everyone.Rachel 

The number of mistakes I made formula feeding my first born because of the lack of info frightens the hell out of me to this day. I called a nurse hotline once to ask some questions and got a lecture about how I should try to re-induce lactation.” - Mina 

Regardless of what happens in the 48 hours after delivery, the education parents are receiving about infant feeding is downright embarrassing. Classes drill the importance of breastfeeding into our heads without giving us much practical information on how to actually nurse; this is somewhat understandable as it’s the kind of thing you can’t really learn without doing. However, a brief acknowledgment of some of the more common complications would be an easy thing to add to prenatal curricula - latching issues, flat or inverted nipples, tongue ties, commonly used drugs that may be contraindicated, health conditions such as diabetes or PCOS which could potentially complicate breastfeeding – and doing so would prevent many women from feeling like failures when breastfeeding doesn’t come easily. Considering the emphasis on avoiding nipple confusion and establishing milk supply in the first few weeks which permeates the canon of breastfeeding advocacy literature, it seems logical that we should do whatever we can to ensure that women are not blindsided by these issues – forewarned, they could come up with a solid plan with a lactation professional which could prevent actions made in moments of confusion and panic.

Additionally, the lack of education about formula feeding is a travesty. I have written about this many times before, but I will reiterate: if only 36% of American mothers are breastfeeding exclusively at 3 months, that means a majority of babies are being fed formula. It is IMPERATIVE that they are properly supported in doing so. Ignoring the fact that formula is a reality in the lives of many parents doesn’t just punish the parents- it affects the babies. True, formula feeding isn’t brain surgery – but it could be argued that breastfeeding is an instinctual act for humans. Formula feeding? There’s nothing instinctual about it. There is a huge margin for error. I personally suspect that many of the subtle health disparities we see in the aggregate between formula fed and breastfed babies are due to avoidable and common mistakes in formula preparation and selection. Most parents have no idea what the difference is between a “sensitive”, “hypoallergenic”, or “lactose-free” formula. They don’t know that the angle of the bottle, the flow of the nipple, and the type of formula (powdered, liquid, concentrated) could affect their baby’s digestive system. They don’t know what water to use, how often they really have to sterilize bottles, or what formula to choose. They must rely on friends and the internet for advice about something that should be – unlike breastfeeding – a regimented and meticulous process (sadly, it seems our society has this flipped. Breastfeeding is treated like brain surgery, and formula feeding is seen as something we should inherently know how to do…). Medical professionals may be used to the “formula feeding model” for things like weight gain and feeding schedules, but even this is more true of the “old guard” (those who have been practicing for a long while, before breastfeeding’s resurgence) and these same folks might not be aware that there’s been research and new thought on the bottle-feeding front since they got out of med school in 1963.

I propose that breastfeeding education be altered to reflect some of the realities of breastfeeding – common challenges, medications, diet, and pumping – the same things discussed on KellyMom, Mothering.com, and The Bump. I also want to see hospitals offering bottle-feeding classes and resources once a mother has voiced a desire to either supplement or completely formula feed.

The “Parent-Friendly” Manifesto

I am not sure what form this “initiative” will take just yet, but I am hoping that FFFs across the country will join me in advocating for positive change. It is healthy and necessary to mourn the loss of breastfeeding, or rage against the current atmosphere of shaming and belittling formula feeding moms – but we can turn that anger and grief into positive change. I know we can. Let’s work on this, together, so that no new moms have to go through what we have gone through. Let’s make it so  FFF Fridays become obsolete, because there will be so few people who feel bullied, abused, or let down by their experiences. Let’s make my friend’s comment a reality – make it so that I have lost my passion, because there will be nothing left to get fired up about.

Who’s with me?

Weaning onto cow’s milk: why are the recommendations different for formula feeders and breastfeeders?

I always wonder about the term “toddler”. When does a baby become a toddler, and when does a kid cease to be one? I assume the term came from the propensity of the early childhood set to toddling, since most babies don’t perfect their gait until close to two years of age. But two year olds are still considered toddlers, right? Am I the only one who is confused about this? Or the only one who wastes time even thinking about it?

Confusing label as it may be, there is one thing that is clear when it comes to toddlers: they no longer need infant formula. Once our kids hit the magic 12 month mark, we can throw out those $5 formula checks and do a little dance of joy. If you’re doing extended bottle feeding, you can fill the bottle with cow’s milk or a milk substitute of your choice- any of these options will be a welcome change to your bank account. Some parents choose to switch to a toddler formula (especially if their child is a super picky eater, or has been diagnosed as failure to thrive or with another feeding or nutritional issue), and for those of us with kids cursed by the dreaded dairy allergy, we might be forced to remain on hypoallergenic infant formula for awhile longer to make up for the lack of fat and protein most kids get from cow’s milk (the substitutes do a bang-up job of providing calcium, vitamin D and a myriad of other nutrients these days, but they can’t compete with the fat and protein profile produced by the dairy industry). But for the vast majority of formula feeding parents, the first year birthday party is made up of presents, cake, and a ceremonial dumping of Enfamil down the kitchen sink.

And yet, as FFF Abigail pointed out on the Facebook page today, breastfeeding moms are encouraged to nurse for two years by WHO, UNICEF, the AAFP, and other major medical organizations. One would therefore assume that there would be a nutritional or medical reason for this recommendation; since formula has been created to fill in for breastmilk, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the toddler nutritional needs that necessitate breastmilk would also benefit from formula over plain old cow’s milk?

In some ways, the answer is pretty simple: the reason we don’t use cow’s milk prior to a year of age is because our systems aren’t developed enough to process it. By the age of one, human digestive organs are capable of handling dairy, and cow’s milk provides a good amount of the protein, fat, and vitamin content that young kids need to thrive. Obviously, breastmilk does as well - and it has the added advantage of being made specifically for human babies. Breastfeeding moms can keep nursing, and provide a good source of protein and fat; in this case, there is no need to include cow’s milk or a milk substitute into a toddler’s diet. (This is not to say that breastmilk should replace solids or a diverse range of foods for kids over 6 months- from the research I’ve seen, there is a strong case that breastmilk, formula or regular milk should always be part of a toddler’s diet, not all of it.)

It’s easy to see why someone might be confused about this, though. The American Academy of Family Physicians does not really explain why a baby should be breastfed for two years; WHO and UNICEF lean heavily on arguments about lack of sufficient nutrition and risks of bacterial contamination in the developing world, which are not all that relevant in resource-rich nations – although I do suppose one could argue that Americans living in abject poverty may reap some of the same benefits, given the difficulty of obtaining quality nutrition. If you search “benefits of breastfeeding past one year”, the Google Gods will hand you vague blog posts based on opinion rather than fact, which make bizarre and unfounded claims about the more “supple skin” and “shiny hair” of the breastfed toddler. There are some citation-based claims about how the immunological benefits of breastfeeding continue into toddlerhood; comments from well-known breastfeeding advocates about how beneficial extended nursing is, without much research to back it up; and articles which explain a dose-response effect of breastmilk (meaning that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the better the effect), but most studies do not look at Western, nursing children over a year old in terms of health outcomes.

I am not trying to belittle extended breastfeeding in any way, or to suggest that there aren’t plenty of advantages to breastmilk later in childhood (as I said before, it is a far more appropriate drink than cow’s milk, from a biological and evolutionary perspective).  I am a strong proponent of nursing as long as it feels right to you and your child. But I also think it’s fair to ask the question: if the nutritional benefits reaped from a 2-year nursing relationship are so vital that WHO views 2 years of nursing as ideal, even in the developed world, wouldn’t that necessitate some sort of substitute or supplement for those who aren’t meeting that recommendation? We’ve been told that toddler formula is just a ploy of the formula companies, so something doesn’t seem quite kosher here. (Ha! Like how I said kosher? And we’re talking about milk?)

I fear that these organizations are confusing people with their recommendations, as they are turning what should be a personal decision into a monitored, medicalized act. Using risk-based rhetoric to support every breastfeeding recommendation they make has the negative side effect (among many others) of making us expect such reasoning. So, when these organizations encourage us to breastfeed for two years, we assume there is a risk to not doing so. I can’t find a significant body of research on this subject, and when even the most ardent lactivist sites are relying on claims about toddler beauty to support the superiority of longer-term nursing, it makes me wonder if maybe there aren’t enough proven benefits to justify the WHO recommendations. 

There may in fact be numerous and vital health benefits to nursing through the second year of life; I don’t doubt that there are emotional ones, because I believe that there are emotional benefits to gently and intuitively responding to your child’s individual needs. But if babies truly need some nutritional aspect of breastmilk beyond the immunological properties (which, while certainly a nice feature, are probably not going to make a significant difference if kids are in daycare or have an older sibling – i.e., exposed to germs –  according to this study), then there very well might be a basis for all those follow-on formula ads, which would make me feel like a dumbass for scoffing at them and screaming that they were a dumb marketing ploy). Or at the very least, pediatricians should be recommending a supplement of some sort to add to dairy/almond/soy/rice/hemp/flaxseed/coconut milk.

Going back to the original question, I don’t think that there is any medical or nutritional reason to remain on formula longer than a year, provided the child has a somewhat well-rounded diet and is growing well. Then again, I’m not a huge proponent of cow’s milk in general, and I’m certainly not a medical professional, so my opinion means squat anyway. But considering the scarcity of good studies on breastfeeding past year one, I’m not sure the AAFP or WHO’s opinion should mean all that much in this case, either.

Bottom line? Breastfeed as long as you want, but do it because it feels right to you and your child; breastmilk has tremendous nutritional value and there sure as hell isn’t a reason to stop if you don’t want to. Just don’t feel like you are sacrificing your child’s health if you do decide to wean at a year, because from a nutritional, health, and risk standpoint, it appears you have as much right to throw your frozen breastmilk down the drain as your formula feeding sister has to pitch the formula, and vice versa.

Two excellent reviews of this subject:

Science of Mom- Breastfeeding Beyond a Year - Why is the AAFP stretching the truth about the benefits?

Good Enough Mum: Breastfeeding for Longer Than a Year – myths, facts, and what the research really shows 

 

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