Saturday, October 31, 2009

Speaking as a Mammal...

If you are a man realizing this post is about breastfeeding, please keep reading! You are essential to the success of breastfeeding.

According to National Geographic's Encyclopedia of Animals, mammals -- evolved from reptiles more than 195 million years ago -- have two things in common: 1. they have hair and, 2. they "all have mammary glands that produce milk to nurse and nourish their young." Yet somehow, in American society, we find ourselves debating whether 195 million years of evolution can compare to the invention of formula.

Do we believe we can concoct something in a laboratory that rivals the sophistication of the human body? Indeed we do, evidenced by our low breastfeeding rates. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that in 2005, only 3 out of every 4 American babies were breastfed at birth, and by 6 months of age, only 43.4% of our babies were still being breastfed. Boundless technophilia, clever marketing and a misguided trust that any product available in national chains must be harmless, actually make many new mothers see breastfeeding and formula as near equals. While formula has played an important role in many special circumstances, in the United States, formula-feeding is not the exception, but the ruling method of nourishing our infants, with more than half of babies on formula before they are 6 months old.

Though the American Acadamy of Pediatrics (AAP), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Family Physicians, Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, United Nations Children's Fund and World Health Organization (WHO) "strongly recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and that other foods should complement breastfeeding for up to two years or more," only 13.6% of American mothers were still exclusively breastfeeding their 6-month-old babies in 2005 according to the CDC.
What Discourages Breastfeeding?
Is 1 out of 4 mothers (who never begins breastfeeding) prevented by special circumstances? There is a wide range of personal reasons American mothers cite for not starting or continuing to breastfeed. Debating the motives of mothers who do not breastfeed will only further polarize us, and distract from the indisputable superiority of breastmilk (see Breastfeeding vs. Formula below for the unparalleled benefits of breastmilk).
"Human milk is species-specific, and all substitute feeding preparations differ markedly from it, making human milk uniquely superior for infant feeding."
-- AAP Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk, 2005
Rather, let's focus on changing our mindset as a community, so that breastfeeding is accepted as imperative to the well-being of our species. Certainly today's American society does not expect mothers to breastfeed for 6 to 12 months. Just think of our maternity leave policy (check out the 2004 Harvard study comparing worldwide maternity policies), which separates mothers and babies too early, at three months or sooner, making the continuation of exclusive breastfeeding difficult, as mothers try to pump a full supply of milk without their baby at the breast to stimulate let-down. Or, think of the pediatricians who, contrary to the AAP's recommendations, encourage mothers to supplement their breastmilk supply with formula, which in turn will reduce the mother's supply and lead to more formula feedings. Or think of the subtle endorsement for formula-feeding made by both my obstetrician's office and hospital, when they distribute free formula samples to new mothers, despite the WHO's policy on formula marketing:
Adopted in 1981, the international code to regulate the marketing of breast-milk substitutes calls for:
  • all formula labels and information to state the benefits of breastfeeding and the health risks of substitutes;
  • no promotion of breast-milk substitutes;
  • no free samples of substitutes to be given to pregnant women, mothers or their families; and
  • no distribution of free or subsidized substitutes to health workers or facilities.
Just as a birthing mother will slow or reverse her labor if she senses danger, a breastfeeding mother will have trouble with let-down if she feels afraid, nervous or intimidated. This is our natural biological response when we feel threatened. American society must accept breastfeeding as normal, good and necessary, and accordingly support and honor mothers who do so, in order for our situation to improve.

How many times has a new mother wondered if she "will be able to breastfeed?" That doubt alone can be enough to undermine her efforts. Without other experienced women to guide her, she may not feel confident enough to continue, or know the simple tricks that can help in the first months as mother and baby are learning.

Isolation is one of the most powerful enemies post-partum mothers face. On top of possibly not being connected to a group of women with a wealth of breastfeeding know-how (try La Leche League or kellymom); many new mothers may instead be influenced by other mothers (past generations and present) who boast what they consider the advantages of formula-feeding. Compounding a shortage of breastfeeding peers, many new mothers also feel isolated when in public, where they may undergo the disapproval of men and women who are uncomfortable knowing a breast is being bared for a baby to suckle.

How can our sons, husbands and fathers see breastfeeding as a natural part of life if we closet ourselves away -- in public restrooms, our cars, our bedrooms -- fearing others' cruel remarks or condemnation for an act they deem private. Why do we sexualize breastfeeding?

I am proud of my father. He snapped this picture of me with my mother and eldest daughter as I breastfed my newborn son.

While this sight in public stirs discomfort in some Americans, this GQ cover appeared in newsstands everywhere in January 2009. I don't think I'm winning any sexy or indecent-exposure contest here.

Breastmilk vs. Formula? No Contest!

Why is mother's milk best?

  1. ...It is perfect nutrition that adapts. Breastmilk is 80% soluble nourishment, an ever-changing daily blend of more than 200 components: "water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, trace metals, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, white blood cells and more, each in ideal proportion to one another. This precise biochemical balance-virtually a 'symphony of ingredients'-cannot possibly be duplicated artificially." (Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert, 1998) Breastmilk even changes during one feeding, at first thirst-quenching, then changing to the richer, creamier hind milk, full of essential fatty acids (EFAs) and lipids. Mother's diet also alters the taste of her breastmilk, helping diversify Baby's palate. Breastmilk content and supply also change as baby develops and goes through growth spurts.
  2. ...It gives Baby the best chance of survival and wellness. Breastmilk contains growth factors that ensure the best development of baby's organs, as well as enzymes, white blood cells, and antibodies. In fact, shortly after Mom is exposed to a germ, her breastmilk includes the antibodies to protect Baby from that specific infection. Breastmilk decreases the incidence and/or severity of a wide range of bacterial and viral infections, including ear infections, bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infections; and diarrhea and pneumonia -- the two primary causes of child mortality worldwide. Breastfeeding has also been linked to a decrease in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), allergies, chronic immune system disorders, and digestive disorders. Postneonatal infant mortality rates in the United States are reduced by 21% in breastfed infants.
  3. ...It makes Baby a healthier adult. Adults who were breastfed have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and lower rates of obesity, diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkin disease, and asthma.
  4. ...It makes Baby smarter. A growing body of evidence suggests that people who were breastfed perform better in cognitive tests, understandable because breastmilk contains fatty acids that optimize brain development.
  5. ...It reduces your baby budget. Aside from investing in nursing bras and/or pads, breastfeeding is free!
  6. ...It is less work. No sterilising, cleaning and carrying bottles, mixing powder, keeping formula chilled, warming formula for feeds. "Have baby and breast, will travel."
  7. ...It protects Mom's long-term health. Moms who breastfed have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as bone fractures and osteoporosis later in life.
  8. ...It returns Mom to pre-pregnancy weight and uterus-size faster. Calories burned and hormones released at each feeding help Mom shed pounds, and contracts the uterus to reduce its size.
  9. ...It strengthens mother-child bond. Hormone oxytocin released in Mom during each feeding, combined with skin-to-skin contact, promote mothering behavior and bonding with Baby.
  10. ...It delays the return of Mom's menstrual cycle. While not a foolproof method of birth control (hence my little brother's conception when I was 5 months old and breastfeeding), exclusive breastfeeding can postpone Mom's first postpartum period for up to or more than 12 months.
  11. ...It has no environmental footprint. Breastfeeding eliminates the need to dispose of formula cans and bottles; and to use energy for production and transport of artificial feeding products.
Healthy, free and made in the USA, American mothers' milk is the best way to feed our babies. After all, we are mammals. We were made to breastfeed.


  1. I certainly agree with you that breastfeeding is the best way to feed babies, if the circumstances allow it. However, citing the statisic that "only" 3 out of 4 women in the US initiate breastfeeding is a little misleading...73% of women (or yes, 3 out of 4, but of course it sounds less impressive that way) are breastfeeding at the time they leave the hospital, according to the 2006 NIS. That is a rather strong majority. Why would you not want to celebrate that?

    I think that ANY amount of breastfeeding, no matter the duration or if it is supplemented by breastmilk, should be applauded. Yes, we are mammals, but as you have pointed out in your post, there are a lot of societal factors standing in the way of exclusive breastfeeding for a year or more. Not that this means we should stop trying to make life easier for new parents, b/c we certainly should - and this will in turn increase breastfeeding rates, I hope - but I think we need to look at the reality also and make sure that we acknowledge that a vast majority of women are at least attempting to breastfeed. That's something to be happy about, IMO!

  2. Wonderful blog entry! I am honestly shocked at the statistic that 3 out of 4 women leave the hospital breastfeeding. That is a good step, but honestly, why wouldn't almost everyone at least try it?! With all of the amazing benefits of breastfeeding that we know of, both for baby and mom, the fact that it's free, and many more reasons, I just don't see why all mom's wouldn't at least give it a go at the beginning for as long as they "can". Breastmilk is made from mom's body for her specific child. Formula is produced the same way for millions of different children. You know what is going into your body, you will never have a recall for your breastmilk. Having many friends and family members with children, I have heard many excuses of why they didn't start breastfeeding or continue for very long (only weeks for some of them). Just to name a couple - it hurt too bad or "it's just not me". If it hurts too bad then that means that the baby isn't latching on correctly and you just need a little assistance. Hospitals have free lactation consultants to help out or ask friends that have already breastfed. Also, it might not feel wonderful the first couple of weeks, but it gets better and as a mother, we need to do what's best for our children. As far as "it's just not me", that I can not understand at all. When you decide to become a mother, you need to realize that it's not all about you anymore. I don't understand how someone can say "it's just not me" in reference to giving a child the best nourishment for his/her body and for their long term health. I definitely think there are certain instances where it does not work out. Some people don't produce enough milk for some reason, but that is a very very small number of women. Sometimes doctors tell woman to supplement with formula because their babies aren't gaining enough weight, but I think doctors now-a-days use that excuse a little too leniently. Babies, along with everyone else in our society, seem to have been gaining weight so that the "average" is a lot more than before. It is interesting to see that breastfed babies usually aren't overweight. Thanks for the great information on breastfeeding and hopefully it will positively effect other mom's out there!