There has been a rather seismic movement afoot (pun intended) in the online breastfeeding community, as it were, over the last few weeks. If you're not in the loop, the gist of the situation is that a breastfeeding advocate named Emma Kwasnica has galvanized a
Other bloggers have done a great job detailing the phenomenon that is Eats on Feets, such as The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog and One of Those Women. There's much to discuss, including the (over)reaction of the Canadian government - and I won't try to reinvent the wheel here; check out their posts! But this awesome recent development ties into something I've been struggling to write about recently anyway, which is the matter of supplementation, which, in our current Western society, is set by default to formula.
Some refer to the choice to supplement (often electively, but sometimes out of necessity) as "combination feeding" or "mix feeding". It sounds innocuous enough, right? I've heard it referred to as "the best of both worlds", and despite the crystal-clear recommendation from both the AAP and
Initiation rates have gone up in most areas (though there's still room for improvement), and this is a positive thing. But after even a few weeks, the number of women exclusively breastfeeding drops dramatically. Check out the CDC's latest report card: By 3 months, the number of women exclusively breastfeeding is only 33%, and by 6 months . . . 13.3%. The numbers for continued non-exclusive breastfeeding are a little bit better, if only by comparison to those exclusively breastfeeding: by that same 6 month mark, 43% are breastfeeding in combination with formula.
Let's look again from the flipside: by 6 months, 86.7% of all American babies are consuming formula.
There has been a lot of great material written about why our numbers for breastfeeding are so low. Many advocates and authors of such pieces focus on the fact that real world support is still so deeply lacking. Our initiation rates are high - should be higher, again, but still, 75% is better than it used to be - and this tells us that the message that Breast is Best has definitely gotten out there. And then, when challenges arise, it is pretty much luck of the draw whether or not the support you get will be enough to allow you to continue. Were I living in a different area, and didn't have access to the excellent IBCLC that I did, I myself would not have been able to breastfeed. It's no hyperbole. I would have been another casualty of this booby-trapped system.
But as I said, wonderful articles and posts abound on this topic. I want to think more about combination feeding and why, and how, it is so acceptable, commonplace, and even encouraged - including encouragement by professionals, despite the unmistakable consensus of their own organizations on exclusive breastfeeding.
Here's my loose hypothesis: the prevalence of combination feeding is yet another result of the well-intentioned but deeply flawed "Breast is Best!" message backfiring. How so? It's tricky, but think about statements like "Every little bit counts - it's liquid gold, after all!" and "Any breast milk is better than none!" Such sentiments abound. Are they true? Well . . . yes. But I think there's a perception out there that breast milk is so powerful that even one feeding a day is enough to confer its benefits. Breastmilk, an omnipotent panacea of mythical, even supernatural proportions - surely it will cut through all the well-documented risks of commercial, artificial infant milk. Right?
IS some breast milk better than none? Well, I'd be hard-pressed to say no. Yes, it is. But saying "yes" is so far from saying that some breastfeeding is even close to the same as exclusive breastfeeding. The immunological benefits of breastmilk are some of its most powerful, the introduction of formula actually negates these very benefits. Look at this recent study from BMJ, examining the protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding on infections in infancy. It concluded that "Partial breastfeeding was not related to protective effect."
And here's another piece on a larger study released earlier this year:
Allow me to repeat that - I apologize for belaboring the point, but I want to make sure it's not missed: "The study showed no health benefits for infants who received formula along with breast milk, even when partial breastfeeding extended a full six months."
"Significantly, the study showed no health benefits for infants who received formula along with breast milk, even when partial breastfeeding extended a full six months . . . . None of the antibodies found in breast milk are able to be duplicated in manufactured formula, resulting in a significant lack of protection for formula-fed babies against infectious diseases. Formula is unable to match the complexity of breast milk, the consistency of which adapts over the first few months of a baby's life, changing to fit the baby's needs as he or she grows."
Pretty far from "Every little bit of liquid gold counts!", isn't it? Why is this? If breast milk is so powerful - and it IS; believe me, I'm not saying it isn't the very definition of a vital substance - then how can the introduction of a little formula negate it? Much of this has to do with the effect it has on our intestinal, or 'gut' bacteria. This IS where our immune system is centered, and what takes place when foreign proteins are introduced is significant. If you have never read The Case for the Virgin Gut, I implore you to do so**. From the piece:
"When babies are born, they have sterile gastrointestinal tracts. If babies are exclusively breastfed, they develop a natural healthy gut flora. (When I speak of the gut, I mean Baby's insides where the food goes until it hits the diaper.) This means that the major flora in breastfed babies has reduced numbers of bad types of bacteria and increased numbers of good bacteria. Formula-fed babies have increased numbers of bad bacteria, leaving them at more risk for illness.Yet again, something touted as the best of both worlds is revealed to not be the best of either, something I've blogged on before - it's practically a series.
Having knowledge of the importance of what is normal for newborns inside may help some mothers in making a decision about whether or not to supplement their babies for convenience in the early weeks. Very few mothers know how totally different babies are on the inside when artificial food is added to their diets. Some mothers add the formula in the hopes that their babies will sleep longer at night. Knowing that only one bottle a day can totally change the protective environment of their baby's gastrointestinal tract may give them pause to reconsider before instituting this practice.The case for the virgin gut is a valid one. There is much research to support avoiding supplementation if at all possible. A huge increase in diarrheal diseases occurs in babies who do not have optimal "intestinal fortitude," which is only possible with guts that have never been exposed to infant formula."
Where does this leave us? Despite the overbearing harpy cliche, I'm coming to feel that breastfeeding advocates, including lactivists and educators as well as some medical professionals, ARE extremely sensitive about pressuring new moms, and want so badly to be reassuring and accepting and above all, non-judgmental . . . so much so that they/we end up understating the risks of formula feeding. Do what you can. Of course some breast milk is better than none. It's okay. You do what you can.
It's a conundrum. We DO need to be supportive. We DO need to be inclusive. We DO need to be non-judgmental. But we also need to make sure that mothers have all the relevant information, all the facts, in order to make empowered choices. Choice, yes, but informed choice. We need to not undermine parents right out of the gate by telling them that (as I witnessed from a professional firsthand) The breastfeeding bag they give you at the hospital has a bottle of formula in it, and that's there to tell you that hey! it's okay to do both! You don't have to choose!
As anyone reading this blog is likely aware, in addition to the risks for the infant, supplementation not done carefully leads to diminishing supply, and if the mother is not aware of how this works, mom's assumption is that something is wrong with her, that she "just couldn't make enough milk", and the slippery slope to total cessation of nursing has already begun. There has to be a way of being compassionate and inclusive without saying things like, as I have also heard with my very own ears from a pro, "If you want to nurse for 6 weeks and then start using formula, that's okay! Whatever works for you! If you want your husband to give a bottle of formula overnight so you can sleep, that's okay! Whatever works for you!"
But there ARE cases, as we know, where supplementation IS necessary. There is no denying that. We want to reduce these cases, but there absolutely are times when it is needed, such as moms with hypoplasia/IGT, or with some BFAR moms, for instance. And here's where the paradigm shift comes in.
It's time that donor milk becomes a real possibility for mothers.
Despite formula companies spending millions to convince you that their product is the "next best thing" to human milk,
Now, milk banking has been around for a while, and while I think it's basically a good thing (as in HMBANA), to say that it's prohibitively expensive for most families is an understatement, and can be difficult to impossible to get unless your child is ill. Doctors can prescribe it and SOME insurance companies are starting to cover it - but we're a long ways from this being the standard. There's always talk of making banked milk more plentiful and accessible (as the Canadian government stated in response to the growth of Eats on Feets), but that time has definitely not yet arrived.
Doesn't milk sharing and direct donor milk (as opposed to the pasteurized kind one can gets from banks) carry some risk, though? Yes it does. There are diseases that are communicable via breastmilk, and it's absolutely wise to vet the donor in whatever way both parties feel comfortable, wether there's a formal or an informal process in place. I've given milk directly to moms who knew me and trusted me, and have done a little bit of wet nursing, but to one mother who found me via MDC, I submitted a medical record of my most recent blood workup, which I thought was totally fair and the other mom seemed satisfied by this. It still involves some trust, but the risks taken in accepting donor milk must be weight against the risks of infant formula. PhD in Parenting has already done a bang-up job of doing just that (though of course every parent has to make this comparison on their own, as she illustrates).
As someone who participated in a nursing support group where milksharing was common, and donated literally gallons of my own milk to several babies, I am so pleased that since mothers are frustrated with the admirable but glacial progress of milk bank accessibility, they are making their own informed choices, taking this into their own hands - and feets.
*This is something that gets lost in translation, telephone game style. I have heard and read more than one mother claiming that the recommendation is to breastfeed for six months, period. They literally interpret the recommendation -whether second or third or fourthhand through peers, or not explained well enough by professionals, or misread in a book - as endorsing breast feeding for six months and no longer.
** Another helpful link on the subject: Just One Bottle Won't Hurt - Or Will It?