New York Times Watch: Exclusive breastfeeding may not be best for your baby. Ugg.

August 27, 2008

I am so appalled by this New York Times article. There is an absolute public health consensus that exclusive breastfeeding through six months is best and highly beneficial (see WHO guidelines, AAP guidelines) and breastfeeding (with introduction of some solid foods) through one year (AAP guidelines) or two years (WHO guidelines) is ideal.  The Times article raises questions about vitamin D deficiency in exclusively breastfed babies.  The author writes:

Physicians have known for more than a century that exclusive breast-feeding may be associated with vitamin D deficiency and rickets, and that the condition is easily prevented and treated with inexpensive vitamin drops or cod liver oil. But doctors are reluctant to say anything that might discourage breast-feeding.

Now some researchers are also linking vitamin D deficiency with other chronic diseases like diabetes, autoimmune disorders and even cancer, and there have been calls to include blood tests of vitamin D levels in routine checkups.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with pointing out that there are low levels of vitamin D in some mothers and breastfed babies and that this should be attended to. But I just kept waiting for the punch line when the author of the article points out that, “Although there is a risk of vitamin D deficiency, it is always far better to exclusively breastfeed babies through six months, and partial breastfeed through at least a year, and deal potential vitamin D deficiency through regular exposure to the sun, a balanced diet on the part of the mother, and supplementation (either of mother or infant, depending on situation), than to not breastfeed due to potential vitamin D deficiency.”

But the author never says anything like this.

She does quote a mom who says, “I thought I was doing the best thing for her,” after blood tests showed her daughter had no detectable vitamin D. Implying, of course, that she was not doing the best thing for her by breastfeeding.

And the author quotes a doctor who says, “I completely support breast-feeding, and I think breast milk is the perfect food, and the healthiest way to nourish an infant. However, we’re finding so many mothers are vitamin D deficient themselves that the milk is therefore deficient, so many babies can’t keep their levels up. They may start their lives vitamin D deficient, and then all they’re getting is vitamin D deficient breast milk,” which, if you read the first part, is sort of an endorsement of breastfeeding although it is quickly followed up by its “dangers.”

It isn’t as if anything said in the article is wrong. And if you already know how important it is to breastfeed (when possible, of course – some moms do not have the ability or luxury of breastfeeding, and this is in no way a critique of them) then this article isn’t going to discourage you. However, if you aren’t sure this article could be read as, “Better be safe than sorry and just do formula.” Which is not good for so many reasons (Mothering Magazine covers this well – see, for instance here, here or here.)

It reminds me of this new style (or maybe it is old, but I notice it more these days) of writers trying to be somehow “neutral” by saying, “Well, so and so says this,” and “another so and so says this” and leaving it at that like, “Well, we’ll just let the reader decide,” even when it comes to things where there is a clear consensus.

I just feel like the slight gains in making mamas and families feel like breastfeeding is a good, viable option for feeding their babies are fragile and I wish the Times would be a little bit more careful in their approach to such important topics. And, although I don’t like the Times article, it is mostly upsetting in the wider context that there is a lack of awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and climate of non-support of breastfeeding mothers. And this just doesn’t help things much.

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Breastfeeding in Class

September 21, 2006

So, in one of my classes, there is a new mom. She mentioned the possibility of breastfeeding in class (it is a smallish seminar) to which I and a few other students responded positively, with no one really seeming to oppose it. The prof. (who is actually a ph.d. student, a new mom herself) responded that she had an office if the mom would feel more comfortable there. I feel strongly that moms should be able to breastfeed where ever and whenever the baby is hungry. I subscribe to Mothering magazine which is not perfect, but overall is really good and fits well with how I hope to raise children someday. There are frequently articles about how new moms often have to deal with being asked to go somewhere else or being made to feel ashamed for breastfeeding in public. (As a side note, while it wouldn’t bother me if a breast was showing, we aren’t talking about topless women feeding here – typically no skin can be seen due to very creative breastfeeding tops or a light blanket thrown over the shoulder.) But back to the class story. So after class the professor send an email to all of us except the breastfeeding mom asking if we would feel comfortable with her breastfeeding in class. If someone didn’t feel comfortable with it, the mom and baby would go somewhere else to feed. I was not in love with the idea of a breastfeeding mom needing permission from the class and responded to the prof. that breastfeeding is a perfectly natural and normal thing and that if someone felt uncomfortable with it, perhaps they could leave for a while while the baby was breastfeeding. I tried to say this very diplomatically, but firmly, noting that I do not believe that it is the responsibility of the breastfeeding mom to take responsibility for other people’s uncomfortableness with it. I am not a very conflict-seeking person, and typically avoid it at all cost unless it seems very important to me. This seemed sort of important, but I also felt like I needed to say it to be true to myself instead of just rolling over and playing fair-weather-feminist. The professor was very nice about it, but in the end I felt like all my standing up for breastfeeding justice was a little misguided when the professor told me that it was in fact the breastfeeding mom who asked the professor to ask the class if they would be comfortable with it. So here I thought I was standing up for a mom (for moms everywhere! for breasts everywhere!) who might be banished to an office to feed when, instead, the mom (presumably) was pretty chill about the whole thing and trying to be thoughtful to those who might be uncomfortable. Still, I’m glad I wrote the letter. But it still made me feel a little sheepish. I have another sheepish story to tell at some point (two in one day! yay!), but I’m off to WomenChurch, an ecumenical gathering of women at the divinity school tonight. I wrote the opening prayer. Perhaps I’ll post it.