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. Around one in eight of the young lives lost each year could be prevented through breastfeeding, making it the most effective of all ways to prevent the diseases and malnutrition that can cause child deaths.
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.