This past week was lovely. It was hot, yes (oh SO hot), but it was filled with activities, family & friends. Sunday, I was going about my business, soaking in all the wonderful memories, when I came across a New York Times article. You know the one. And, as my blood began to boil, my warm fuzzies from the week started to slip away.
My first reaction is fury. I want to rant & rave & scream about how, once again, our country is choosing to put industry before the needs of children & mothers. How it’s putting money before global health. How its solution to a stagnating 70 billion dollar-a-year industry is to sacrifice the health & well-being of families worldwide. How our representatives tried to threaten & bully the world into doing the same. (You see, this is just a teeny, tiny, mini rant). Instead, I’m going to outline why breastmilk is so magical that it matters on a global scale. (Ann Grauer puts forth a beautiful explanation of why it matters for mamas here at home.)
N.B.: while breastfeeding is magical, a fed baby is a healthy baby. We should support all mothers, however they choose to feed their babies. If a mother wants to breastfeed, we should do everything in our power as a society to support that choice.
This is so important for many reasons, but here are just two. First, happier & healthier mothers are more likely to have the physical, cognitive, & emotional capacity to respond quickly & warmly to their infants. This means more secure attachments and, overall, more well-adjusted children (and adults!). Second, in areas of the world where disease & trauma are more prevalent, breastfeeding provides a barrier that may help to keep mamas healthy, safe and alive. Not only is this great news for moms, it’s critical for overall family health.
The breastmilk microbiome contributes to the microbiome of the infant GI tract. Translation: better gut health for those babies!
The infant microbiome is currently a hot topic & we’re still learning. What we do know is that a healthy GI tract improves immunity. Important for all babies, but even more so for babies in places where malnutrition is a risk – breastfeeding creates a buffer! We know that breastmilk is nutrition in itself, but it also builds that GI tract so that, when food is introduced, babies can digest it efficiently & extract the proper nutrition. Imagine how vital this is for little ones only getting small amounts to eat. If imagination isn’t your strong suit, I’ll give you a hint: it’s a real lot.
Breastmilk changes to adjust for the nutritional needs of the infant. This means it changes over time in terms of things like minerals, vitamins, & fat content as your baby grows. But it ALSO means that the composition of breast milk changes from feeding to feeding to adjust to the needs of your baby (like if he’s sick!).
I mean, this is great for those days when your little nugget refuses to eat anything but ketchup. But think of how much this matters for babies at risk. For example, when a baby is born prematurely, the mother produces milk that is designed to meet that baby’s very specific needs in order to optimize growth, development, immunity, & digestion. Or, when a baby doesn’t have proper supplemental nutrition (like in cases of poverty), breastmilk alters itself to compensate. It fills in the gaps when the environment around the baby can’t meet his or her needs. (Fun fact: when I wrote “fills in the gaps” the voice in my head read it like the DNA dude from Jurassic Park.)
Breastmilk shapes the infant’s immune system in order to prevent infections & diseases. You may ask, what does it protect against? My answer: what DOESN’T it protect against?! Risk of SIDS, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, childhood leukemia, UTIs, allergies & asthma, obesity, ear infections, GI problems, & diabetes, to name a few - and it provides additional immunity against diseases that mom has already been building throughout her life. Harry Potter-level magic right there. In 2016, it was estimated that 823,000 deaths in children under age 5 and 20,000 deaths from breast cancer could be prevented by near-universal breastfeeding. Even more incredibly, research has shown that the estimated global health care costs of NOT breastfeeding were $300 billion (money spent on healthcare for the above-mentioned conditions for mothers & children).
If someone invented a medicine that helped to protect against all of these things, people would be lined up around the block to get it. So shouldn’t we support mothers in their efforts to provide that for their children? More breastfeeding mothers would mean better global health overall! In places where medicine, healthcare, & resources are scarce, breastfeeding provides families with a way to boost their children’s health…and it’s FREE. Breastfeeding is very much the first line of defense for so many mothers & babies around the world.
This is not about whether you breastfeed or formula feed. That is your choice as a mother. But that's just it - many of us have a choice because of where we live & what that affords us. The events that unfolded in Geneva are about taking steps that would remove that choice for many women around the globe. Maybe, for some of you, it isn’t a choice. We all know there are so many obstacles to breastfeeding. Even in a wealthy country such as ours, mothers are contending with supply issues, insufficient parental leave, lip & tongue ties, breastfeeding anxiety, & stigma – often all at once with little to no support. Now imagine what those obstacles may look like worldwide.
This IS about a government attempting to undermine worldwide support for mothers so that breastfeeding is no longer a viable choice for many, all so that some fat cats can make a few extra bucks. Don’t let this get framed as a “breastfeeding moms vs. formula feeding moms” debate. Make no mistake, this is about choice. In many ways, this isn’t even about the choice that mothers make in this country, because the choice is so much more vital for those in developing countries. And I, for one, will not stand quietly by while they sacrifice the health & happiness of our children for their own gain.
Photo by Love & Perry Photography.