All new parents deserve a place at the consumer protection table, not just breastfeeding ones: A response to the “Day of Action: Keep Infant Formula Marketing Out of Healthcare Facilities”

Public Citizen is known for its advocacy for ordinary citizens who have been harmed by large entities–and rightly so.  Much good has been done by this organization in the name of everyday citizens who otherwise have little power to lobby our government for stronger laws and regulations to protect our society.  However, Public Citizen’s recent event, “Day of Action: Keep Infant Formula Marketing Out of Healthcare Facilities,” does not accomplish the goal of protecting consumers.  A consumer protection advocacy organization has an obligation to women to support their right to bodily autonomy, as well as support their and their children’s health care needs—issues that are sometimes incompatible with breastfeeding and do not currently receive sufficient support in our breastfeeding-centric post-partum health care model.

The Day of Action fails to address many of the true issues that affect women’s and children’s ability to breastfeed.  A complete lack of formula advertising is not going to enable women with insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) to make sufficient milk, or change the fact that many women have to take necessary medications that are incompatible with breastfeeding.  It is not going to prevent complicated births or medical conditions in babies that sometimes make it exceedingly difficult – or impossible –for moms to breastfeed.  It does not reduce adoptive or foster families’ need for formula.  And a lack of advertising is not going to change the fact that some women do not want to breastfeed, and have a right to their bodily autonomy.  While we agree that it would be best for parents to receive information about formula from a non-profit source, currently, there is no such source that provides accurate, unbiased formula information, even to families for whom breastfeeding is not an option at all.

The Day of Action implies that information about formula is plentiful and accurate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Information about formula is typically riddled with fear mongering about not breastfeeding and uses value-laden language that assumes women who use formula lack perseverance or are selfish, lazy, uneducated, immoral, or ambivalent about their children’s health, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Formula supplies in hospitals are hidden in drawers or even locked up.  Lactation consultants are held to the WHO Code and urged not to discuss formula unless under special circumstances (lest it send a message that formula is “just as good as breastfeeding,” even though it is a medically appropriate option, and sometimes the only option).  Doctors are not taught about formula preparation and are frequently scared off of even talking about formula for fear of being labeled anti-breastfeeding.  Where are formula-feeding families supposed to get the accurate, unbiased, judgment-free information they need?

Perhaps Public Citizen is unaware of the extent to which breastfeeding marketing relies on shaky claims.  Maternity wards are typically papered over with literature that claims breastfeeding improving babies’ IQ and helps new moms lose weight—claims that some assert are based on poorly-done research that frequently confuses correlation with causation, and that have not been borne out in more powerful, well-designed studies.  Recent research on breastfed and formula fed siblings (three well-regarded published studies[1]) showed little to no long-term effect of breastfeeding for a number of oft-mentioned issues.  These studies are powerful because, unlike many other studies on breastfeeding, variables such as parental IQ, educational status, and socio-economic status are much better controlled.  Several large metastudies (including those conducted by WHO[2] itself and the United States’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality[3]) have found that the evidence in favor of breastfeeding is marred by confounding factors.

A consumer protection advocacy organization has the responsibility to ensure that advertising claims are based on sound science, but the “absolutes” plastered on maternity ward walls, city buses, and doctor’s offices (“Breastfeeding prevents asthma[4]”, “breastfeeding makes babies smarter[5]”, “Breastfed babies grow up stronger, healthier and smarter[6]”) and liberally sprinkled in literature distributed to new parents do not fulfill this criteria. Public service messages cannot be immune to the regulations that restrict other advertising.

Further, perhaps Public Citizen is unaware of how much of the advertising for breastfeeding actually benefits corporate entities.  New moms in hospitals are given sample tubes of Lansinoh nipple cream, Medela breast pads, and coupons or ads for local boutiques that sell breastfeeding products such as Boppy nursing pillows and covers.  It is common for new mothers to receive sample magazines, which exist both to promote themselves as well as the advertisers within. It seems counter to Public Citizen’s goals to protest one form of advertising and not others.

Women deserve to know the full range of medically viable options for feeding their children, in an unbiased, accurate, and judgment-free manner, and we feel a consumer protection organization should be at the forefront of that fight.  Formula feeding parents need help, advice, and support just as much as breastfeeding parents. Unless Public Citizen is willing to help establish a non-profit center to train “infant feeding consultants”, not just “lactation consultants,” whose job is to support all medically viable methods of feeding a baby, this Day of Action seems just another way to deny formula-feeding families what little information they can still get about their health care options for their children.  It seems to contradict the stated goals of Public Citizen to protect consumers.

We encourage Public Citizen to speak with actual formula feeding parents, many of who feel marginalized in our healthcare system for the choice or necessity of formula.  Breastfeeding—and products and service providers who support it—is so heavily promoted in hospitals that formula feeding families are left without the kind of education or support that breastfeeding families receive. As there are no non-profit sources of education for formula, other than a few websites run by mothers who have taken up the charge, companies are the only remaining source. This is not ideal, but it is currently all we have. We encourage Public Citizen and all who support this Day of Action to read the stories of actual formula-feeding parents, the vast majority of whom report seeing no advertising prior to using formula, at FearlessFormulaFeeder.com, and consider how they may equitably represent the needs of pregnant, birthing, and post-partum mothers and their babies at the consumer protection advocacy table.

Signed,

Concerned Members of the FearlessFormulaFeeder.com Community

 

 


[1] Evenhouse, Eirick and Reilly, Siobhan. Improved Estimates of the Benefits of Breastfeeding Using Sibling Comparisons to Reduce Selection Bias. Health Serv Res. Dec 2005; 40(6 Pt 1): 1781–1802; Geoff Der, G David Batty and Ian J Deary. Effect of breast feeding on intelligence in children: Prospective study, sibling pairs analysis, and meta-analysis. BMJ 2006;333;945-; originally published online 4 Oct 2006; Colen, Cynthia G. and Ramey, David M. Is breast truly best? Estimating the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing in the United States using sibling comparisons. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 109, May 2014, Pages 55–65.

 

[2] Horta, BL and Victora, CG Long-term effects of breastfeeding: A systematic review. World Health Organization, 2013.

[3] NIH Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries. Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 153, April 2007.

 

 

Guest Post: I Am Not a Cow

I’m thrilled to share this post with you, from my friend Andrea Nord. Andrea is the chairperson for the non-profit organization “Bottle Feeding in Sweden” and is an admin for a Swedish Facebook group like the FFF private group, which can’t be an easy job, considering the infant feeding attitudes of that country. She’s one of the most astute, brave, and seriously awesome women I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know in this crazy sort of advocacy I’m in, and I’m glad I get to share her brilliance with you via this post (which she graciously translated into English for us). The post originally appeared on Petra Jankov Picha’s bottle feeding blog “Att Flaskmata”.

About twenty km east of Lund, in the southernmost part of Sweden, is a large natural area called Revingehed. The Swedish military uses this area for short periods for their exercises and sometimes you can hear the sounds of gunfire in the village of Veberöd where I live. But for the most part, the area is a quiet and peaceful place where hundreds of cows graze freely to keep the grass short and the grounds open. Sometimes we take a drive there for a near-cow-experience, as my kids call it. If you are lucky you may see cows on the road just when you are driving by. It’s a really lovely experience that I heartily recommend, especially now when the calves are small.

When you think of cows you might think of beautiful black and white Holsteins wandering back to the barn after a long day of grazing in the meadows. All the cows are the same, it’s just the patterns on their coats that are different. Otherwise, they all have the same needs, they all want the same things and they all do the same things all day long. There are no cows with any special needs or aspirations, except of course the famous fictional cow Mamma Moo from the Swedish children’s books with the same name, the cow who was not satisfied with just grazing and chewing. She wanted to do everything that people did, she wanted to swing and go down a slide, despite her good friend the crow’s desperate attempts to point out to her that she is in fact just a cow, and cows do not behave like humans. Period.

Source: http://9teen87spostcards.blogspot.com/2011/07/mamma-moo-cow-riding-bicycle.html

Source: http://9teen87spostcards.blogspot.com/2011/07/mamma-moo-cow-riding-bicycle.html

 

Part of what makes Mamma Moo so funny is her inability to comply with expected and “natural” cow behaviour. Mamma Moo is a.. feminist! Imagine that! And then the idea hit me – why does the WHO and our Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare assume that all women in the world are the same, that we all do the same things and want the same things? Why do people think that women don’t have different needs, wants or conditions? Why this astonishment whenever we want to do something different from the expected and “natural”?

Does the world see us women as.. cows? Because if you do not see women as unique individuals but as cows, then it is close at hand to recommend that we should all do things exactly the same way. What is “best” is then best for everyone. The word recommend is perhaps the wrong word, require is probably closer to reality. And there are many “truths” that we women are expected abide by and now we come to The Mommy Wars, which I see as the social pressure to get all women to comply to a perceived truth. You see, all of us women are supposed to do things exactly the same way!

If there was tolerance for women doing things in different ways, then there would be no reason to get all upset about it. But women do in fact want different things – some want to work, others want to be at home. Some breastfeed, others bottle feed. The nerve of them!

It’s interesting that I find it hard to find similar examples where one would try to get all men to do the exact same things or get upset if they didn’t. The mere idea is completely ridiculous, for men are seen as individuals, they are all different and they are allowed to do what they think is best. The only example I can think of, when trying to get all men to do the same thing, is when you recruit them into the army and send them out to war. Then and only then are men oppressed to all do the same thing. But in peacetime, they are all free to do whatever they want and however they wish to do it. Now I would like to end this rant with an appeal to the WHO, the National Board of Health and Welfare and all the health authorities: stop seeing us women as cows! See us instead as unique individuals capable of thinking and making decisions about what is best for ourselves and our families!

Let us be free to decide how we want to feed our babies and stop trying to round us up and herd us all into a corral. We are women, not cows.

Can breastfeeding concerns be overcome with support? Depends on what “support” means

Guess what? Women are having trouble meeting their breastfeeding goals.

Contain your excitement.

Apparently, this is news to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and every major news outlet in North America. The study causing such shock and awe came out this Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers used self-reported data (i.e., interviews) from 532 first-time moms giving birth at a particular medical center (can’t find where, and due to geographical differences in levels of breastfeeding support and acceptance, I think this is vital information that at least one of the articles could have shared with us). The women were asked prenatally about their breastfeeding intentions and concerns, and then re-interviewed at 3, 7, 14, 30 and 60 days postpartum. According to Reuters:

During those interviews, women raised 49 unique breastfeeding concerns, a total of 4,179 times. The most common ones included general difficulty with infant feeding at the breast – such as an infant being fussy or refusing to breastfeed – nipple or breast pain and not producing enough milk.

 

Between 20 and 50 percent of mothers stopped breastfeeding altogether or added formula to the mix sooner than they had planned to do when they were pregnant.

 

Of the 354 women who were planning to exclusively breastfeed for at least two months, for example, 166 started giving their babies formula between one and two months.

 

And of 406 women who had planned to at least partially breastfeed for two months, 86 stopped before then.

Given these results, the study authors come to the conclusion:

Breastfeeding concerns are highly prevalent and associated with stopping breastfeeding. Priority should be given to developing strategies for lowering the overall occurrence of breastfeeding concerns and resolving, in particular, infant feeding and milk quantity concerns occurring within the first 14 days postpartum. (Source: Pediatrics)

 

The headlines, as usual, were both amusing and infuriating. “Nursing Troubles May Prompt New Moms to Give Up Sooner”. “Early breastfeeding challenges make women quit.” “Some moms discontinue breastfeeding within two months die to nursing difficulties”. And my personal favorite, “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

One might easily blame the media for their usual skewering of the science to make for a juicier headline, but one can hardly blame them when the experts giving interviews about this study say things like, “It’s a shame that those early problems can be the difference between a baby only getting breast milk for a few days and going on to have a positive breastfeeding relationship for a year or longer… If we are able to provide mothers with adequate support, 95 percent of all breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

So, what’s my issue? I think the study is fine. Sort of a no-brainer, considering they could’ve came to the same conclusion years ago had they just listened to moms instead of insisting we just needed more convincing of the benefits of breastfeeding, and we’d all magically lactate to the satisfaction of the World Health Organization. But the quote above (from Laurie Nommsen-Rivers, one of the study authors) makes me wonder if the results of the study are being taken in the wrong context.

The focus is on moms not getting enough support –  something that I 100% agree needs to be focused on. Like, yesterday. But where the experts quoted in these articles and I part ways is on what type of support is needed. This passage from NPR illustrates my point:

The researchers didn’t do physical exams of the moms and babies, so they don’t know what was happening for sure. But they speculate that some of the first-time mothers may have misread the babies’ cues, mistaking fussiness for hunger, for instance, or thinking the babies weren’t getting enough milk when they’re doing just fine…

 

Once again, the assumption is that women are wrong about their bodies, and about their babies. The study authors surmise that access to lactation consultants in the first week postpartum, after hospital discharge, will be the solution to many of these problems. Again, I absolutely agree that this is a great start. And yet – reading through the scores of FFF Friday stories, I have to wonder… is this really going to make a difference, given the current state of our breastfeeding culture? How many LCs have we all seen, cumulatively? How many were bullied or shamed by medical professionals? How many of us have been told our babies were fine, only to end up in the ER with a dehydrated infant? How many of us were told – by professional lactation consultants and pediatricians – that every woman can breastfeed, and that we should just keep on nursing and it will all work out?

Looking at this study, this is what I see: a ton of women are claiming to have pain, trouble latching, and concerns that their babies aren’t getting enough milk. NPR also reports that the group with the least amount of reported problems was comprised mostly of women under 30, and women of Hispanic origin. That begs for further research, doesn’t it? Could age and legitimate lactation failure be associated? What about race/ethnicity? Are there conditions more prevalent in older, non-Hispanic populations that are also associated with breastfeeding problems?

And this is what I also see: We have an opportunity – no, a responsibility- to look at the type of support these women are getting. Is it truly evidence-based? Or is it based on dogma; on the belief that “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible”? (By the way, I am super curious about the research backing up that claim.) Are the individuals giving the support truly listening to the mothers, examining them, considering the delicate balance of hormones necessary for lactation, or the effect of emotional or physical trauma around birth on a woman’s ability to withstand latching pain or her infant’s cries? Is there nuance? Are these mothers being seen, or are they being treated as uniform breasts, needing to be “handled” so that they can fulfill their duty of providing exclusive breastmilk for 6 months?

I’m not knocking a study that advocates for more support for moms. I simply want us to open up the discussion, rather than going in circles, with the same researchers and the same experts telling us the same things – if mothers only knew better. If they could only be taught to recognize their babies’ cues. If they would only listen to us. 

I think it’s time they listened to us, instead. Which brings me to what I’d really like to see from this study: a follow-up where they ask the women who “failed” to meet breastfeeding recommendations what they think would have helped them reach their goals. Because without that piece, I really don’t think we can get very far.

 

Let’s talk about SES, baby: a critique of three studies getting far too much attention in the news this week

If I didn’t hate conspiracy theories so much, I’d start this post out reminding you that a recent systematic review from the World Health Organization (WHO) had the nerve to be realistic about the health benefits of breastfeeding. The results shouldn’t have been surprising to any of you who read this blog regularly; basically, they found that most infant feeding studies show modest benefits to breastfeeding, and are bogged down by research pitfalls like endless confounding factors, self-reported data marred by poor recall, and the impossibility of conducting the double blind, randomized, controlled experiments we need to make absolutely sure we aren’t confusing causation with correlation. But considering that this analysis came from WHO, an organization that has been fundamental in the popularization of breastfeeding advocacy and research, it must have ruffled a lot of feathers.

So, one could argue that the media push of three rather sloppy studies is simply a flurry of flapping wings, trying to distract from the presumably disappointing WHO statement. But one won’t, because one gets seriously annoyed when one hears people engaging in similar conspiracy theories about Big Formula. Although one could also argue that viewing these studies as a ploy would be a less offensive interpretation than assuming people actually think they are worth spreading around. One is also very exhausted after a 4-am wake-up from one’s two-year-old and one is discussing oneself in a grammatically incorrect, rather disturbing third-person. Let’s move on, shall one?

The three studies include one about metabolic function and gut microbiome; one about maternal deaths attributed to not breastfeeding; and one about child cognitive function. We’ll start with the the metabolic/gut microbe study, Early Diet Impacts Infant Rhesus Gut Microbiome, Immunity, and Metabolism, because it involves rhesus monkeys and they are just so damn adorable.

For this study, the researchers fed rhesus monkeys either breastmilk or infant formula, and concluded that “metabolic and gut microbiome development of formula-fed infants is different from breast-fed infants and that the choice of infant feeding may hold future health consequences”. I don’t think it’s even worth explaining what the implications of this finding are in humans, because, well, these were monkeys. They were presumably fed monkey breastmilk and human infant formula, or human breastmilk and monkey formula, or some other combination of the two. But no matter what, they were comparing apples to oranges. Or humans to monkeys, as the case may be. True, rhesus monkeys are considered a great stand-in for human subjects, but if monkey milk was that similar to human milk, I expect we’d see the WHO hierarchy of infant feeding change to include “rhesus money milk” after human donor milk, ahead of formula. (I wonder if anyone has ever looked into this, come to think of it… ) To quote some of my favorite lactivist memes, cow’s milk is for cow babies. Human milk is for human babies. Therefore, wouldn’t feeding monkeys either human milk or formula made to emulate human (as opposed to monkey) milk confuse the results?

Consensus: not worth worrying about unless you are super concerned about the metabolic and gut function of rhesus monkeys being used as lab rats. (If you are, contact your local animal right’s group, because frankly I think using innocent animals for this sort of “research” is on par with using them to test mascara.)

Next up, we have a study from the same researcher who brought you the infamous “Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding” study which was the direct cause of a permanent dent in the master bedroom wall of our old house that bears an uncanny resemblance to the shape of my forehead. This new study, Cost Analysis of Maternal Disease Associated With Suboptimal Breastfeeding, uses the same type of statistical model as its ugly stepsister and reports:

If observed associations between breastfeeding duration and maternal health are causal, we estimate that current breastfeeding rates result in 4,981 excess cases of breast cancer, 53,847 cases of hypertension, and 13,946 cases of myocardial infarction compared with a cohort of 1.88 million U.S. women who optimally breastfed. Using a 3% discount rate, suboptimal breastfeeding incurs a total of $17.4 billion in cost to society resulting from premature death $733.7 million in direct costs, and $126.1 million indirect morbidity costs.

All you need to know about this study is in the abstract (something I never thought I’d hear myself say). This is not a study, but an elaborate guesstimate, based on “modeling cases” of specific diseases the authors believe to be caused by not breastfeeding “using literature on associations between lactation and maternal health”.

Consensus: Not worth worrying about, unless you are taking economics and want to challenge yourself by figuring out how they came to their conclusions, as I expect it would be an interesting exercise. See how I’m looking out for your cognitive development? Which is a great segue to our last study of note…

Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study, by Deoni et al, which claims to:

…(P)rovide new insight into the earliest developmental advantages associated with breastfeeding, and support the hypothesis that breast milk constituents promote healthy neural growth and white matter development.

 

Here, the researchers performed MRIs on a bunch of babies and toddlers who had been breastfed, formula fed, and combo-fed, and found that the exclusively breastfed kids showed more white matter in their brains, as well as a few other differences in brain composition that suggested enhanced cognitive ability. The study is being applauded for doing two important things: showing the advantage of breastmilk on the human brain without having to rely on IQ tests and performance assessments, and for (supposedly) controlling for the ultimate confounding factor of socioeconomic status, or SES. This is because all of the babies they used were born full-term, healthy, and to mothers in the same socioeconomic group, based on the Hollingshead Social Status Index.

Ideally, this would lead people like me to throw up the white flag, as we can’t start arguing that maternal education or income has anything to do with the benefits observed in breastfed babies. If all the mothers were of the same social status, and they controlled for health issues in the babies (which they did) then the breastmilk has to be what’s influencing the results, right?

The trouble is, in this case, the researchers failed to control for what is, arguably, the most important factor of all – maternal and paternal IQ. They try to explain this away, stating that “(w)hile maternal IQ was not specifically measured, the combination of education and SES was believed to provide an adequate alternative.” Now, it could be my sleep-deprived brain (speaking of white matter, I bet if I had an MRI right now the image would look like swiss cheese) but doesn’t this seem rather obtuse for people smart enough to be conducting neurological studies? Having a superior education does not mean that your IQ is high, and if you’re talking about wealth in the same breath, the reality can be even trickier. Enough money can buy you an pretty impressive education – followed by a high-status job. There are extremely smart mechanics and extremely average CEOs. Status begets status, and IQ may beget IQ, but the two don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

This is a long way of saying that maternal SES (speaking of which – it really twists my knickers that none of these child cognitive studies ever mention the dad’s role. What about paternal IQ? Paternal SES? Paternal involvement?), while undeniably important when measuring things like access to healthcare, is not an accurate assessment of the quality of the child’s early learning and home environment,  or his/her genetics – two important pieces in the intellectual development puzzle. A recent study using similar techniques as the one in question discovered that “the more mental stimulation child gets around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be in the decades ahead.” Considering that the Deoni study did not even control for childcare – i.e., whether the child was primarily in daycare, with an in-home but non-parental caregiver, or with a parent (mother or father) – how can we possibly know if their environment had any effect? Women in the U.S. who choose to/are able to exclusively breastfeed for a lengthy amount of time – something that often requires a physical, emotional and in many cases professional/financial burden – might also be more willing to invest in their children in other ways that can affect early learning. Not to mention that EBF women are more likely to be full-time caregivers to their babies - the elephant in the room, especially for a working mom like me who has made a decision to combine career and family. True, I don’t want to hear that staying home with your babies gives them cognitive advantages (and I also think there are plenty of ways to skin a cat or however that horrible saying goes, and there are advantages to having a mother who is professionally fulfilled and satisfied, also) but I also think it’s subliminally sexist not to talk about this- because it certainly doesn’t have to be the woman who stays home. Anyway, I digress… but the point is, this study doesn’t control for what it needed to control for.

Consensus: Given the fact that they didn’t control for much besides health and SES, I don’t think this study “proves” or even “suggests” anything important, except that the people studying these brain scans might want to assess their own critical thinking skills. I wonder if that can be seen on an MRI?

 

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.

 

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