Saturday, December 3, 2011
Society's denial of the evidence regarding infant feeding
I remember smoking my first cigarette in Church camp in 1967. I remember how horrible it tasted but how really cool and hip I felt taking a drag off of a Marlboro cigarette. I was 16 years old and I felt like this was my initiation rite into adulthood. Marlboro was my cigarette. I felt liberated. I smoked those cigarettes until 1981, some 14 years. It became a habit that was hard to break. I smoked more when I had bronchitis and I had bronchitis alot. Towards the end of my smoking years, I saw people I knew die of lung cancer (people who smoked for years and smoked while getting cancer treatments). I knew the "rumor" about the connection between smoking and lung cancer but somehow it didn't stop me from smoking. I suppose we all think we are invincible. I did want to quit but it never seemed to work. Just before I quit, I had been sick and went to the doctor. It was once again bronchitis. The doc listened to my lungs, prescribed something for it. But then he did the unspeakable, he spent 10 minutes telling me that I needed to quit smoking. It was a long 10 minutes and I was mad. Mad at him for saying what no one else would say to me. I remember thinking, how dare he tell me what to do and not do. It was my body and my Marlboro Country. I was mad about it for weeks. I kept thinking, "I'll never go back to that quack!" Yet, deep down I was disturbed. And I really started thinking about quitting. I finally quit. It was a month of hell and I feel sorry for those who were around me when I quit. I look back now and realize the influences that got me started smoking. My parents smoked, so it seemed normal. It seemed like grown-up behavior. My first cigarette was free and it was the brand I stuck with for 14 years. The feelings of liberation probably came from the ads I saw on TV. Of course, it wasn't true liberation. I was a slave to my cigarette fix. It cost me a ton of money in terms of buying the product and being sick. I haven't had bronchitis since I quit smoking some 30 years ago (touch wood...don't want to jinx myself). I have a debt of gratitude for that doctor who was willing to say what so few people were willing to say back then. He was direct with me and while I did not immediately quit smoking it got me thinking. Now we know that cigarette smoking causes even more health effects. It impacts the cardio-vascular system. It causes a rare kidney cancer (my stepmom got this and had to have dialysis, she smoked for some 40 years or more). We know alot more now and accept that smoking is not healthy.
So what has this got to do with infant feeding? Like our understanding of the health effects of smoking tobacco, our society is at that stage of denial regarding infant formula. We disbelieve the evidence because we cannot believe a common practice like infant formula feeding can be detrimental. We should see it, but we don't see it. And when we see the destruction, we believe it won't happen to us. After my experience, I realize that advocacy does not necessarily bring friends, nor is that the purpose of advocacy. There will be anger and denial. This is what we are witnessing right now. I call it the river of denial. There was a river of denial regarding smoking which was aided and abetted by the tobacco industry. The same river runs through the infant feeding debate only it is the infant formula industry who is aiding this river of doubt.
Mothers believe that there is a balanced choice between breastfeeding and infant formula. They believe that the only risk might be contaminated water, if you live in Africa. When I first became a La Leche League leader in the 80's, I had obtained two booklets with scientific references to breastfeeding. I believe they were edited by AS Cunningham. Page after page of studies showing the protective properties of breastfeeding and the risks of infant formula. For instance, a study done by AS Cunningham called "Morbidity in breast-fed and artificially fed infants." J Pediatr 1979 Nov;95(5 Pt 1):685-9. I quote from the abstract, "The protection afforded by breast-feeding is greatest during the early months, increases with the duration of breast-feeding, and appears to be more striking for serious illness. It operates independently of the effect of associated factors such as socioeducational status, family size, day-care exposure, and birth weight." There were many similar studies and I remember thinking this is a powerful body of evidence. Yet here it is almost 2012 and we still have this enormous denial of evidence from bloggers like fearless formula feeder. Actually, we still have denial from some breastfeeding advocates. There is this belief that if one teaches mothers in developed nations how to correctly use infant formula, then there is no risk of feeding formula to infants. It is a belief that having clean water, correct measurements, eliminates the risk of infant formula. Yet, there is a large body of research starting from the seventies that shows that there is intrinsic risks to using infant formula.
I have been mulling over the words, species specific, particularly when it is directed at the milks made by different mammals. Human beings are mammals, although in our culture of admiration of technology over nature, one gets the feeling that we believe that we can overcome this trait. Species specific. I keep saying that to myself. We know that some mammals, cows, must have colostrum to survive. So while the calf of a dairy cow is taken away from its mother, it is given cow colostrum. It won't survive without it. That knowledge was learned the hard way, by the deaths of calves deprived of their mother's milk. Luckily for us, humans, our survival is not totally dependent on human colostrum. Although I would argue that the health and well-being (short-term and long-term) of human infants is impacted by depriving them of colostrum.
It is of interest that gene studies on the mammary gland of various species believe that the milk of each species is tailored to the specific immune system of that animal. I read somewhere that each species has antibodies that are species specific. In an article called "Mammals Got Milk," they say, "A new study looks at the genes that produce milk among seven species of mammals, including us, and finds that all of them share a lot of the same milk making genes but not all species deliver the same milk. In fact, the milk might be tailored to the specific immune system needs of the animal." and
"Overall, the findings of our study support the hypothesis that the biological roots of milk production in mammals are quite ancient and that evolution of milk has been constrained in order to maximize the survival of both mother and offspring..."
We are now living in times where there is real concern about antibiotic resistance and old infectious diseases are making a come back because our medicine no longer works. We know that breastfeeding builds an immune system. So that in my mind the infant that is formula fed is in essence less able to fend off disease because they are immune deficient. Infants are being deprived of the optimal defense system against disease, breastfeeding. Yet, our society continues to deny the life-saving qualities of breastfeeding, and defends choice. Infant feeding choice is liberation? Yeah, I felt really liberated smoking cigarettes in my youth. How much of what we feel about infant feeding is derived from the infant formula industry's public relation system in full drive? How much of the anger that some infant formula feeding mothers feel against breastfeeding advocates is misplaced? It reminds me of the anger I felt against my doctor for telling me to quit smoking. Denying the evidence, may make everyone feel more comfortable about "choice." But choice comes at a cost in dollars and cents; and more importantly in short term and long term health consequences to both a mother and her baby.
Copyright 2011 Valerie W. McClain