Category Archives: Benefits

Good news/bad news or environmental contamination of breastmilk

You may have heard in the news that mothers’ milk is contaminated with toxic chemicals. It is true. It is also true that everyone agrees that breastmilk is the first choice food for babies. All major public health organizations promote breastfeeding. Even though we live in a world where harmful chemicals are in our environment and in our bodies and in our breastmilk, breastfeeding is still the first choice food. Even when a mother’s milk is known to contain particular contaminants, breastfeeding is still almost always the best choice for her baby.

Unfortunately we know that mothers’ milk is contaminated with a long list of harmful chemicals (persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals are most often mentioned). Breastmilk is contaminated because mothers are exposed through what they eat, drink, breathe and touch. The fact that these chemicals appear in mothers’ milk is a reminder that mothers (and all people) are exposed. Steps to protect breastmilk are the same steps that are needed to protect everyone. Rather than thinking of breastmilk as a separate problem, we need to think about it as one small facet of the bigger problem. While all of us are exposed to toxic chemicals, babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of many of these chemicals. As part of taking care of their future health, it is important to stop ignoring or accepting this contamination of their food.

While we know that babies do best with breastmilk, they would almost certainly be healthier in the long run if there were fewer harmful chemicals in that milk. So what can families do to give their babies the healthiest start on life that they can?

1) Become politically active because we can not protect just our own family. Some chemicals that are found in breastmilk got into the environment when they were used in another country. Many chemicals are in the water and air. An individual mother will not be able to stop all of her exposures with her individual lifestyle choices. We have to all work together to find alternatives and limit the ability of companies and individuals to expose all of us to harmful chemicals. When your babies are small it can be hard to find the time to be an activist. A good starting place is to donate to reputable environmental organizations and then follow up on any easy action steps they send to you. Some possible organizations are Environmental Working Group, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

2) There are some lifestyle choices that can decrease chemicals that a mother (and her breastmilk) are exposed to. This is a topic where there are always new recommendations and new information. An easy way for new parents to stay on top of research and recommendations is to check helpful websites like the Planned Parenthood Green Choices, the Environmental Working Group guides to personal care products, water, and produce, or the National Library of Medicine Household Products database. There is so much information here that it is easy to become overwhelmed. It is a good idea to work on one thing at a time, choosing what is manageable. If the idea of looking at these websites is overwhelming, take a look at the list of ideas at the end of this essay – then look up that topic on one of the websites and make their suggestions part of your lifestyle. (Of course in the better world that I dream of for our children, no mother should need to be up-to-date on toxicology research just to protect herself and her milk – see my first point above).

Some starting points:
– Choose foods that are low in pesticides.
– Eat organic meat, eggs, and dairy.
– Join a CSA farm.
– Learn about which fish are safest to eat.
– Use safer plastics.
– Choose safer sunscreen, shampoo, soap, detergent, makeup.
– Learn about food packaging and which options are safest.
– Check your home for sources of lead exposure.

Where to go to learn more?
MOMS: Making Our Milk Safe
American Academy of Pediatrics: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk
Pediatric Environmental Health (AAP)
International Lactation Consultant Association position paper
Having Faith and Raising Elijah by Sandra Stiengraber
Slow Death by Rubber Duck, book by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie


Mental health for mamas

There is loads to say about this – having a baby is a huge life stress as well as a welcome joy. Breastfeeding often gets blamed for lots of problems with lack of sleep being on of the biggies. According to an article by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett (one of my very favorite authors on the topic of stressed out mamas) we shouldn’t be blaming breastfeeding for our exhaustion after baby is born. The reality is that breastfeeding mothers get more sleep than bottle feeding mothers:

In a study of mothers and fathers at three months postpartum, data were collected via wrist actigraphy and using sleep diaries (Doan et al., 2007). The study compared sleep of exclusively breastfed infants vs. those supplemented with formula. In this sample, 67% were fed exclusively with breast milk, 23% were fed a combination of breast milk and formula, and 10% were exclusively formula fed. Mothers who exclusively breastfed slept an average of 40 minutes longer than mothers who supplemented. Parents of infants who were breastfed during the night slept an average of 40 to 45 minutes more than parents of infants given formula. Parents of formula-fed infants had more sleep disturbances. They concluded that parents who are supplementing with formula under the assumption that they are going to get more sleep should be encouraged to breastfeed so they will get an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep per night.

In defense of (real) food

Check out this Colbert Report with Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food. (I’m sorry that I’m not techno savvy enough to embed this video.)  The cool thing is this: Pollan says, “We have been trying to synthesize breast milk for 150 years, and we still don’t know how to do it. And babies on formula don’t do as well as babies on breastmilk, and we don’t know why.” Another interesting thing that Pollan says in his book applies to formula as well as lots of other things that we eat. He describes complex processed foods as “edible foodlike substances”. Whole food is what research shows is good for our bodies and eating whole food starts at birth with breastfeeding.

Gift #1: A special relationship

There are very few times in our lives where we experience that feeling of falling in love. It’s that happier-than-anything feeling that someone else is perfect for us. It may be romance, it may be that new best friend, it may be that little baby that we’ve brought into our family. Part of this perfect feeling is the hugging and touching — being totally there for this new relationship. With a new baby putting him or her to the breast can complete the feelings of falling in love.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh describes this in Gift From The Sea

In the sheltered simplicity of the first days after a baby is born, one sees again the magical closed circle, the miraculous sense of two people existing only for each other, the tranquil sky reflected on the face of the mother nursing her child.


Gifts to ourselves

It’s Mothers’ Day. I hope all of the mothers out there have a lovely day. Mine has been really nice. In Madison today it’s sunny, cool, and all the spring flowers are blooming. All my kids are getting along and they’re all doing their work — even my oldest who needs to study for finals. So I’ve gotten lovely gifts from nature and my family. As a good feminist, though, I don’t think we should wait for other people to recognize that mothering is a really cool thing to do. Babies don’t say thanks, older children don’t necessarily appreciate us, and almost none of our public policies are mother-friendly. We aren’t going to change our babies and children. Like the rest of us, they probably won’t really appreciate their mothers until they have children of their own. We can work to change public policy because children that are cared for are a benefit to everyone. This change will take time, though. So in the meantime we can recognize and take advantage of the things that mothering rewards us with. The more I’ve thought about this topic, the more ideas I’ve had but since this blog is about breastfeeding, I’m going to do a series of posts on why breastfeeding can be a gift to mothers. After spending years breastfeeding my own children and even more years helping breastfeeding mothers I’ve come to realize that breastfeeding is not just a gift to our children but is a gift to ourselves as well.

I realize that breastfeeding (and mothering) isn’t always a pleasure. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Sometimes it is discouraging. Sometimes we wonder why we’re even doing it at all. Of course a big reason that we keep going is that we see how good it is for our babies. But it isn’t all self-less. Breastfeeding (and mothering) can be really good for mothers too.

Sleep Survey Results

You may remember a post a while ago where I linked to a sleep survey for mothers of new babies. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett and Thomas Hale (authors of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood and Medications and Mothers’ Milk respectively) have been collecting data about how new mothers sleep, where new babies sleep, how the babies are fed, and how tired mothers feel. Their preliminary results were published in the February 2009 Medications and More newsletter.

Since many people encourage mothers to give their babies formula to “get a break” or “get some rest”, I was interested to see this result

When asked to rate their energy on most days, 28.7% of breastfeeding mothers rated their energy as excellent or very good, compared to 19.4% of formula feeding mothers and 19.1% of women who combined methods.

Maybe breastfeeding is the way for new mothers to give themselves a break? Of course, one thing to notice is that even among the breastfeeding mothers only about 1 out of 4 reported having excellent or very good energy levels. Being a new mother is a tiring business…

Some new research (and an old joke)

Here’s the joke:

“A blonde is walking down the street with her blouse open and her right breast hanging out. A policeman approaches her and says,”Ma’am, are you aware that I could cite you for indecent exposure?” She says, “Why officer?” “Because your breast is hanging out.” he says. She looks down and says, “OH MY GOD, I left the baby on the bus again!”

Well, new research published in Pediatrics this month addresses this (not actually funny) topic of the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal neglect and abuse. A 15-year study based in Australia followed children from before birth into their teens. Data collected for the study was linked with a government child protection agency data base. The study analysis found

… the odds of maternal maltreatment for nonbreastfed children being 4.8 times the odds for children breastfed for ≥4 months. After adjustment for confounding, the odds for nonbreastfed infants remained 2.6 times higher…Among other factors, breastfeeding may help to protect against maternally perpetrated child maltreatment, particularly child neglect

This relationship was long-term — not just when the babies were being breastfed. Something to think about…