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Tag lactation

The Big Letdown: A Book Review

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It’s been a long time since a book has hit the scene that really resonated with me to the point of wanting to discuss or promote it. The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, by Kimberly Seals Allers, is the first book in a while that not only chronicles the path taken to where we are, but also lays out a plan for next steps.

The first part of the book covers history, politics, and science and is well researched. The middle of the book really gets to the heart of structural barriers, racial disparities and lack of meaningful support for breastfeeding.

I find it interesting that some of the negative reaction to the book I have seen is rooted in the notion that being a feminist means that you are not allowed to look at how women are approaching issues of equity and decide that there are new ways to approach it. Women need to continue to demand the same opportunities, pay and influence as men have. Of course we need and want more and better and longer paid family leave in the US so that (all) parents can take time off to care for a new baby or a sick relative or themselves if they have an unexpected health issue. This would most definitely ease the burden on those who have just experienced childbirth, or adopted, breastfeeding or not.  Addressing policy is the first point that Ms. Sears Allers invites us to focus on next. Yet at the same time, we need to push the needle forward on valuing things such as breastfeeding and mothering.

Valuing mothering does not mean devaluing fathering or parenting or grandparenting or dictating a strict set of rules for how to parent. This passage from Chapter 5, Nipple-omics and the Value of Motherhood, sums it up: “In a world where we are fixated on time and overwhelmed with overscheduling, breastfeeding is framed as confining and restrictive because it works best unscheduled. Instead, we should challenge why we have no freedom to be temporarily unstructured or unscheduled or made to feel like less of a woman for exercising this freedom.” I agree. Not everyone wants to choose an unstructured and unscheduled path, but as a person who supports new parents, I sure can’t keep up with the inquiries from new mothers who wish they did not have to return to work so soon or would like to relax and slow down as they adjust to parenthood but just don’t know if it is ok to do that.

The book challenges whether or not aspects of the feminist movement have helped mothers. It’s a fair question. Is choice really choice as far as breastfeeding goes when there are so many obstacles? Just like with health care, is it really impossible to have health care for everyone or does America just not value that? Is it really impossible to make breastfeeding easier for people or are we just not willing to ask the questions or have the conversations that seek to support the idea that breastfeeding is really valuable. Not just nutritionally, but societally.

Ms. Sears Allers outlines a set of seven starting points for taking action. The time is right for moving the needle forward and these areas to focus on are clear and well articulated. No doubt the task at hand is a challenging one, and complicated! There is a lot to consider in discussing how society, politics, and women themselves, intersect to create the current lactation landscape. Yet I am inspired and motivated by reading her perspective and I urge you to get a hold of a copy and consider how you might be able to incorporate some of her ideas on the way forward into your work.

MicroBirth Screening 9/20/2014

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If you are in the Boston North Shore area, here is your chance to attend one of the world premiere screenings of the documentary MicroBirth. Birth Philosophy is hosting a showing of the film at the awesome Cinema Salem (voted best theatre on the North Shore!) in Salem, Massachusetts on September 20, 2014 at 10am.

How the human microbiome is formed and/or compromised is, without a doubt, a huge HOT TOPIC these days. Toni Harmon and her husband Alex Wakeford are the filmmakers at One World Birth are are exploring questions about how birth affects the microbiome seeding of a newborn baby. The way a child is born and whether or not they  are breastfed or have skin to skin contact immediately with their mother all play significant roles in this highly complex process. A person’s immune system is either helped or hindered based on all of these factors. The documentary features a large number of experts from around the world who share some really fascinating information and opinions about an incredibly important topic for public health.

I invite you to come on over to the theatre to watch this extremely interesting film. More information and ticketing link here. And if you are not in the area check out the trailer and website to see if there is a screening near you!

Mammals Suck…Milk! at Harvard with Katie Hinde

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Breastfeeding is one of the most politically hot topics of our day. The subject cuts across some touchy areas: breast milk v. formula, work v. stay-at-home, how long is enough? Oh, and don’t forget breastfeeding in public or breast milk selling and sharing. Weigh in on any one of these discussions and you are pretty much guaranteed to piss-off at least a few people in any setting, no matter your point of view.

So…what if there was a way to consider breastfeeding without so many of the usual political or personal filters put on the topic? Well, earlier this month at the Harvard Science Center I was pleased to sit in on a lecture about lactation that seemed, to me anyway, to have done just that. The presentation was given by Katie Hinde, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and it was a lay-persons review of some fascinating scientific studies digging into what we know and most notably, what we don’t know, concerning the way in which mammals breastfeed their young and the value of the milk (and the mother-infant interaction) to the development of the young.

In her presentation Katie discussed research on how the composition and quantity of rhesus macaques monkey milk varied depending on the sex of the baby monkey, analysis on the purpose and effect of various milk components such as oligosaccharides, cortisol and bacteria. We learned that the mother naturally creates different types and amounts of milk for sons and daughters and that the components in mammal milk are widely varied, vast and largely unknown. Throughout the presentation it became clear that the extremely limited knowledge we have today about what these components are and what they actually do is only the tip of a fascinating iceberg.

Some of the other interesting aspects of the research Katie was highlighting included the intertwined elements of nutrition and socialization for the monkeys. One point, which jumped out at me, dealt with the scientific research process itself. In that, to study the natural behavior of mammals such as the macaque monkeys it is impossible to separate the socialization and the feeding. I found that a notable reminder that there is more going in with infant feeding than simple milk transfer. It was also really thought provoking to consider the various resource trade offs that were occurring for a monkey mother based on the age and size she was at each of her pregnancies.

Overall, I came away with a renewed sense of wonder about how closely linked maternal and child development really are and how little we understand about the dynamics in play. I am in no way fluent in human evolutionary biology so I am not going to try and break down this awesome science because that would be really embarrassing for me. Do, however, go and check out Katie’s blog posts on sex biased milkmilk and behavior, the Comparative Lactation Lab, her chuckle worthy twitter feed @Mammals_Suck, or any of her published research if  you want to geek out on this stuff as it is well worth a look. And don’t blame me if you get hooked on it because I am warning you, Katie makes things really fun and interesting. I mean, who can resist the competitive challenge of filling out your picks and cheering on your favorite mammals in a basketball bracket style twitter game of Mammal March Madness? Trust me, this is a blast and educational to boot so keep your eye out for the 2014 version that will launch in, you guessed it, March of 2014.

It was fascinating to consider how all this works in nature and for an hour or so to strip out a lot of the noise contributed by the modern human response to the topic of breastfeeding. I look forward to following Katie’s work as well as keep my ear to the ground for other, similar research underway – sometimes, just maybe, mother nature is the best teacher, after all, she has had millions of years to perfect her lesson plans.

A special shout out to Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC for initially introducing me to Katie’s work!

Katie and I at the end of her talk which I will link when the link is available.

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