It was one of those mornings. One minute I am simply getting dressed for work, the next I am hopping around with only one leg in my tights, trying to find pen and paper to grab what I can from another nutrition-related radio story. On that particular day, it was an NPR story entitled, Some Baby Formulas May Cause Faster Weight Gain.
The story which ran on January 24, 2011, starts out by saying that breastfeeding can be challenging, so most babies are on formula. It was about a small study comparing cow’s milk formula and predigested protein formulas– which are very expensive and used mainly for babies with significant digestive issues including cow’s milk allergies. The research suggested that at 7 months of age, the cow’s milk formula babies weighed two pounds more than breastfed and predigested formula babies. The study only observed that the babies drinking the cow’s milk formula took a longer time to be satiated and therefore drank more. There was no explanation given for this.
Interviewed for the story was Dr. Nicholas Stettler, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. He starts out by saying that formulas have been proven safe and effective, and if infants like them and eat them, they’ll maintain their health and weight. He then goes on to say that babies who gain too much weight in the first weeks and months of life are 5 times more prone to obesity and its inherent health risks by age 20–and that formula babies often gain too much. He concludes by advising that, “Parents should work closely with their pediatricians to make sure their babies don’t gain too much or too little. In this case, average is best.”
All in all, it wasn’t worth the hopping. None of this was exactly news to me and if anything I was surprised at the limited analysis of the results. However, it touched on an issue that I feel quite strongly about–the dismal state of affairs regarding breastfeeding in this country and its many implications.
Ironically, on January 20th, just four days before, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin announced the “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding“. Outlined clearly in the announcement and its accompanying report are the many benefits of breastfeeding and the attendant health risks of not doing so. Clearly known in the medical and nursing community is that there are many physical and emotional benefits for both nursing moms and their babies and that babies who are not breastfed are at increased risk for diarrhea, ear infections, more serious lower respiratory infections, SIDS, childhood leukemias, asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Lactation experts and women who do breastfeed understand that human milk is species-specific for human babies, and its composition perfectly designed for proper and progressive growth. Mother’s milk changes composition during each feeding as well due to differences in the foremilk and hindmilk and naturally provides nutritional, immunological and satiety factors.
In the introduction to the report, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius writes, “For much of the last century, America’s mothers were given poor advice and were discouraged from breastfeeding to the point that breastfeeding became an unusual choice in this country.” I appreciated the admission. Tucked in the report amongst the many reasons for our pathetically low breastfeeding rates was this paragraph: “A recent survey of pediatricians showed that many believe the benefits of breastfeeding don’t outweigh the challenges that may be associated with it and report various reasons to recommend against it.”
This seems pretty shocking given the following. Comparing formula-fed babies to those who were breastfed exclusively for four months, the rates of hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections are 250% greater; for GI infections including diarrhea are 178% greater; and, for necrotizing enterocolitis in premature babies 138% greater for the formula-fed babies. The economic impact of just these three illnesses that breastfeeding can prevent, costs this country 3.6 billion dollars per year. In cultures where babies have unlimited access to the breast and constant maternal contact, the prevalence of psycho and sociopathic behaviors are very low. What is the economic cost of those disorders?
Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, this recommendation does not translate into proper education, promotion, and support. Hindering the promotion of breastfeeding in this country is the perpetuation of the idea that the decision to breastfeed is a personal one and we should not make women feel guilty for not breastfeeding. Also, as a non-breastfeeding society for a few generations now, the cultural belief system is that most babies are raised on formula and they are fine. Additionally, like nutrition, obstetricians, and pediatricians– who are best poised to promote this clearly biologically superior milk–may not receive much training on breastfeeding and there is an awkwardness about women and breasts–even in the medical community.
The moment that baby opens its little mouth and receives artificial milk, it is unwittingly committed to a different path than its breastfed nursery mate. Immediately, that baby becomes a consumer of a highly and often deceitfully marketed corporate product; is more vulnerable to various illnesses and diseases with short or long term health implications; compromises its innate ability to self regulate feedings, and now in this weighted world, must work with its pediatrician to strive for average.
The Health Center where I work serves a large and diverse international clientele. I feel very fortunate to encounter daily a multi-cultural perspective. Last week, as I was walking past the main waiting area, two young women were nursing their babies. One woman was Mexican and the other was Burmese. This was not shy, covered up nursing. Both, were one breast exposed unabashedly doing what women have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. Confidently nourishing their young. How challenging can it be?
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In health, Elyn