Guest Post: On HIV, stigma, and the pressure to breastfeed

If people read one post on this blog, I hope to god it’s this one. I didn’t write it – it was submitted by Megan DePutter, who works as a Community Development Coordinator at a Canadian AIDS Service Organization – and therefore it tackles so much more than the usual mommy-war crap I tend to drone on about. 

Please read this, and talk about it, and share it as much as you can. As Megan says, as we advocate and empower women to breastfeed, we cannot simultaneously allow women who are already marginalized feel more shamed and judged. This doesn’t hold true only for women living with HIV, but those dealing with a whole slew of medical and emotional conditions that might make breastfeeding difficult or contraindicated. Sort of puts a new spin on the saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, doesn’t it?

- The FFF

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On HIV, Stigma, and the Pressure to Breastfeed

By Megan DePutter

I work in a small-ish community (about 130,000 people) in a town about an hour outside of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada.  Locally, provincially and nation-wide, “baby-friendly initiatives” in health care and social service institutions aim to encourage and exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. Bypassing for now the unfortunate name of the initiative (which seems to insinuate that any other approaches to feeding are “baby un-friendly”), I understand that these initiatives are evidence-based and well-intended. The problem is that, for the women I aim to support, these initiatives can create further isolation and shame to people who are already marginalized. The women I am referring to are women living with HIV.

See, while the complexity of the HIV virus is still stumping scientists who are working towards the distant prospect of a vaccine or cure, HIV has become primarily a social and a political problem, rather than a biological one.  Canada is one of the best places in the world to be living with HIV – although it’s far from perfect. But here in Canada we have readily available treatment – treatment that is more effective and easier to manage than ever before.  HIV can still pose health risks even with treatment, and the side effects can be unpleasant to say the least, but someone who is diagnosed today with HIV, takes their medication regularly, doesn’t smoke and takes care of their health can expect  a near normal lifespan.   This means if someone living with HIV today has access to treatment, health care and other necessities of good health, such as good food and stable housing (and these are big ifs for a lot of people), they can enjoy a full and productive life. They can work, they can love, they can even have children.  That’s right – they can have children! HIV positive women can – and do – give birth to HIV negative babies. In Canada, with proper treatment, the risk of giving birth to an HIV positive baby is reduced to less than 1%! This is great news for women who are HIV positive and want to have a family. However, because HIV can be transmitted through breastmilk, it is important that they do not breastfeed.

Let me back up for a minute. HIV – which stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus – is the virus that attacks the immune system and, left untreated, causes AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The distinction between HIV and AIDS is important because today, with proper treatment, the virus can be successfully suppressed.  Without treatment, the immune system breaks down, leaving the individual vulnerable to life-threatening opportunistic infections, at which point an individual is said to have acquired AIDS, and without medical intervention, will likely die.  With treatment though, someone can live with HIV for decades and never develop AIDS. So, if AIDS isn’t the biggest threat to people living with HIV, what is?

The answer is unequivocally stigma.  Contrary to a lot of myths, HIV is not spread through casual contact such as sharing sheets, linens, clothing, food, dishes or cutlery, bathwater, swimming pools, or toilet seats. HIV is not spread through touching, hugging, or kissing. HIV is not spread through coughing, sneezing, urine or feces, sweat, tears or saliva.   Moreover, the effective use of condoms are a successful way of preventing HIV transmission during sex, and viral load suppression through medication further reduces the risk of transmission to a near impossibility.  Methods of getting pregnant for couples who are sero-discordant (mixed HIV status) are plentiful. In other words, there is no reason to be afraid of living with, loving, or building a future with someone who has HIV.  Yet HIV positive people continue to face rejection upon disclosure of their HIV status – from potential partners, from family members, from friends, from their church and from entire communities.  People face discrimination in accessing housing and in the workplace and even from health care workers.  Whether out of fear, lack of knowledge, or judgments around how someone may have acquired HIV (which often stems from racism, homophobia, sexism and/or stigma around sex or drug use,) social exclusion can be an everyday part of the life of someone living with HIV. It is impossible for me to overstate the impact that stigma has on the health and wellbeing of people who are positive, even at a time when people with HIV are at their healthiest.

Let’s get back to breastfeeding.  For women living with HIV, motherhood can raise a gaggle of other complex social and emotional challenges. I’ve already mentioned that stigma impacts people living with HIV, but what about women specifically? People might assume that she’s a drug user, that she’s been a prostitute, that she’s been promiscuous. Given the judgments and attitudes that are often formulated around women’s sexuality, you can imagine what a woman living with HIV might face. For mothers, this stigma is intensified. And, since women with HIV must not breastfeed (although the best-practice around this differs depending on what country you live in; the guidelines are different for women living in countries without access to clean drinking water or formula) women living with HIV often face added judgment around their inability to breastfeed.

Since most women will not want to disclose their HIV status to others, they cannot divulge the very good reason they have for not breastfeeding when facing scrutiny.  The questions they are inevitably asked by friends, family, and health practitioners cause anxieties for women who are attempting to keep their HIV status a secret. In some cases, people can be very pushy about it; I have even heard stories where family members or friends may get so involved as to physically attempt to place the baby on the breast and have the baby feed without consent.  If a woman does disclose her status, she would, unfortunately, very likely face further stigma and judgments about her HIV status.  And if word got around (which it often does), she could be virtually expelled from her community. For women who are newcomers, do not speak English fluently, or are living in poverty, community engagement is often an imperative component of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. When it comes to keeping HIV a secret, there is a lot at stake.

Furthermore, pregnancy and motherhood can bring up feelings of guilt and shame about the illness; in addition to facing external stigma, many women experience internalized stigma, and may feel guilty for not being able breastfeed. Feeling guilty about not being able to breastfeed is problematic enough for any mother, but for women who are already marginalized, further feelings of guilt and shame add to an already pretty big burden.  Some women may be tempted to breastfeed despite the risks. Others may withdraw from social circles. Others may be reluctant to access social services or health care where they are made to feel guilty about formula-feeding or pressured to discuss their personal reasons for formula-feeding.  For women living with a disease that needs to be managed through access to treatment, good health care, food, housing and community supports, social isolation can be dangerous.

HIV is not something a lot of people think about today, but it still exists – it’s just hidden.  Unfortunately a lot of health care workers in our community are unaware of HIV, the scientific developments in prevention and treatment, and the social implications of the disease.  HIV workers aim to help support women through these challenges, but we need our communities to be aware of these issues and help create supportive environments. Just because women living with HIV do speak openly about their illness does not mean the problem has gone away.

Mothers who are living with HIV need proper information and support around formula-feeding, and they need this information offered in a non-judgmental space. When programs are designed they need to take in to consideration the multitude of needs that may be spoken or unspoken.  I believe it is important that health-promotion programs, including those that support breastfeeding, be designed in an inclusive way. Women already face extensive social and political control – particularly around our bodies, sexuality, and children. It is important that social and health care programs foster independence, support diversity, and create a safe atmosphere that is free of judgment and respects the privacy and confidentiality of all women.  This is about respecting the critical health priorities of women who may already have extensive trauma issues and already experience marginalization.  I know there has been a lot of important and empowering work done towards providing better support and education on breastfeeding that is free from the outside influences of companies who sell formula, but we need to prevent the pendulum from swinging towards exclusivity.  I hope to educate health care and social service providers in my community to share information and create spaces that are built on models of inclusivity and support, rather than stigma and shame.

Please feel free to contact me at communitydevelopment (at) aidsguelph.org for more information or if you have tips or suggestions to share on how service providers can create a supportive environment for all women!  For more information about HIV and AIDS, you can also contact your local AIDS Service Organization. Other great resources are thebody.com and CATIE.ca.

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.

 

Breastfeeding pressure doesn’t care about privilege

I am privileged.

I’m not rich, but I have never gone hungry; never been without a roof over my head; never wanted for anything (well, nothing more pressing than a better body and maybe a date with Ewan MacGregor circa Trainspotting). I don’t know how it feels to be judged by the color of my skin. I’ve been discriminated against, as a Jew and a woman; called names like kyke and jewbeggar and bitch, but I’ve never been racially profiled or held back by a language barrier, or assumed to be suspicious or uneducated because of the way I look.  I have a great husband and amazing friends and ridiculously supportive parents and in laws.

I realize that in the United States, this means I am incredibly lucky. I also realize that this means I have no business assuming things about anyone else’s lived experience. It doesn’t matter how many academic texts I read or people I speak with in a clinical setting – I can’t know how it feels to be dependent on welfare, or in an abusive relationship, or at a dead-end job with a sexually harassing boss.

I often hear that the pressure to breastfeed is a problem plaguing a specific socioeconomic and geographical subset of women; that my assumption that women are being harmed by overzealous breastfeeding promotion is dripping with “privilege-laden assumptions”. The people making these claims insist that poor, minority women think formula is superior (because they’ve all been victims of unscrupulous marketing and social pressure), and do not know the benefits of breastfeeding, and that if anything they feel ostracized if they breastfeed. Formula feeding, they say, is the unfortunate norm – my concerns have no place in these communities.

I don’t deny that I am coming from a certain perspective, and I always acknowledge that things are different depending on where you live, and what your social circles are doing. I also don’t deny that these social and marketing influences are real. But I think it’s just as privileged to assume that all women in lower socioeconomic areas need to be “educated”, and to ignore the fact that the lower a woman’s status in society, the easier it is for her bodily autonomy or emotional well-being to be violated. Ensuring that the rights of these women are protected is more important than raising breastfeeding rates – and the same policies which are worrisome for a privileged white woman are even more deleterious for someone whose voice is already struggling to be heard.

Yesterday morning, I met with two women who work at an organization serving a lower income neighborhood of Manhattan, helping teenage mothers from a variety of cultural backgrounds. These women told me that in some of the ethnic groups they serve, breastfeeding is very much the norm; in others, it is not as culturally accepted. Their organization is extremely pro-breastfeeding – there is no formula available at their office to give to girls in need, and they encourage breastfeeding throughout the prenatal period and beyond. But when I brought up the idea that the girls these women work with are not being affected by the “breastfeeding makes good mothers” philosophy, I was met with disbelief. “The ivory tower ideal is even more of an ideal for someone who is already struggling to fit the definition of a good mother,” one of them explained. They expressed a need for better messaging – encouraging at-risk women to focus on mothering rather than just feeding. Things like promoting skin-to-skin, reading to your baby, eye contact… not putting the emphasis on breastfeeding as the be-all end-all of parenting.

I also learned that the breastfeeding education these girls are given mostly consists of comparisons between formula and breastmilk, and information on how breastfeeding leads to better bonding and healthier kids. There is little instruction on the actual mechanics of breastfeeding, or how to manage the lifestyle barriers that could make exclusive nursing difficult. So while these young women may go into labor wanting very badly to give their babies the best (and they are well aware its the best, as their prenatal education features lectures on the differences between formula fed and breastfed babies), once they leave the maternity ward and have to return to work or school within a few weeks, without successfully establishing breastfeeding, or knowing how to pump, or how to advocate for their right to express in the workplace (if their workplace even falls under the parameters of the latest breastfeeding laws, many end up on formula- without any advice on how to do so safely.

After that meeting, I had lunch with an FFF who lives in Brooklyn. Her story was all too familiar – wanting to breastfeed, finding herself faced with low supply, getting conflicting advice from healthcare providers, balancing her own health and sanity with her (incredibly nuanced) understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits. The same sort of story we often see on this blog, from an educated mom with a supportive partner who had the ability to hire lactation consultants, and knew how to read scientific literature well enough to suss out her own risk/benefit analysis.

Obviously, this woman came from a very different situation than the women represented in the day’s earlier conversation.  But there was a remarkable similarity in what was expressed by everyone I spoke to. There was consensus on what we need: a more balanced, less hysterical, more individualized approach to infant feeding. All agreed that an honest discussion of the challenges of breastfeeding would be helpful, and that education on formula feeding safely and knowledgeably would go a long way in protecting the physical health of babies and the emotional health of mothers, regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background.

The stories these women are telling are not about white or black, native or immigrant, poor or rich. This isn’t about politics. It’s about what will be the best choice for an individual woman in her individual circumstances. These are stories with one moral: that we can – we must – support a woman’s right to breastfeed as well as her right to choose not to breastfeed.  This isn’t about doing away with Baby Friendly, because we need to ensure that women are getting a good start to breastfeeding and every opportunity to make it work (and that means switching the focus from vilifying formula to actually helping women initiate and sustain breastfeeding in practical ways). But we need to speak up and insist that there is a way to do this without loading more pressure onto new mothers.

I have a feeling breastfeeding guilt is seen as a problem of the privileged, because we are the ones with the time, resources, and autonomy to speak up about it. That doesn’t mean women of other backgrounds aren’t feeling the same pressure, perhaps manifesting in even more damaging ways. Still, it’s not my place to pretend to understand them, or to put words in their mouths. There’s no way I could, because these women aren’t an aggregate. They are individuals. To speak for the “disenfranchised” or “minority communities” as a sole entity is asinine. My experience is extremely different from other moms in middle-class Los Angeles – that doesn’t make it any less real, or valid.

One-size-fits-all infant feeding policies do not work, because women are not one-size-fits-all. In fact, in both fashion and life, one size usually just fits a lucky few. To label breastfeeding guilt as solely an experience of one type of woman, and paternalistic “education” as necessary for another, is just plain wrong.  It would be nice, instead of arguing about who has the most altruistic motives to help certain groups of moms feel empowered, we just focused on empowering all women to make choices that feel right for them, and to decide how their bodies are utilized.  Because while I would never attempt to speak for anyone, I don’t think it’s a privileged assumption that most of us would appreciate the ability to speak for ourselves.

 

 

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?

Dear Mayor Bloomberg: Please stop the smoke and mirrors

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the new document says:

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

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

What the old document said:

What does it mean to restrict access to formula?

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

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

 

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

 

What the new document says:

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

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

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

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

What the original document said:

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

What the new document says:

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

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

Myth: Formula will be forbidden in some fashion.

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

 

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

 

What the new document says:

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

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

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

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

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

o 257% excess risk of hospitalization for lower respiratory infection

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

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

 

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

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

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

Best,

Suzanne Barston, FearlessFormulaFeeder.com

 

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