When Lactivism Kills
Recently, there have been so many sad, infuriating, and heartbreaking stories in the media that it’s hard to keep up. Surprisingly, the ones that are hitting me the hardest are not about politics. As a pregnant person, who is literally about to give birth to my third child, the stories that are making me shake and cry are about lactivism, breastfeeding advocacy, and how this movement is literally killing babies and breast/chestfeeding parents.
- Moms like Florence Leung, who died from suicide, after the pressure to breastfeed her son contributed to severe postpartum depression. Her husband is begging new moms to get help and to ignore the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and the pressure to breastfeed at all costs that he blames for his wife’s death.
- Babies like Landon, who experienced cardiac arrest from dehydration just 12 hours after being discharged from a “baby-friendly” hospital and who died after two weeks on life support.
- Babies like Tyler, whose young mother was convicted of negligent homicide after he died from starvation when she was unable to produce enough breast milk.
- The 15 newborns who suffered from Sudden Unexpected Postnatal Collapse (SUPC), a condition where healthy infants with no underlying conditions unexpectedly stop breathing, while their mothers were holding them skin-to-skin at “baby-friendly” hospitals, as the initiative recommends.
- The 15 babies who died and 3 babies who nearly died as a result of falls and suffocation, while bedsharing with their likely exhausted moms in hospital maternity wards, after their moms were forced to room in with their newborns.
- The unnamed baby in this study who died from brain edema due to hypernatremic dehydration from exclusive breastfeeding.
- One study showed that 1.9% of 3,718 term and near term babies were admitted to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in a 5-year period with postnatal hypernatremia related to insufficient breast milk intake. It’s important to remember that these are just admissions. There’s no way to know how many babies don’t get enough breast milk in their first days of life and BFHI does not track or report its complications or readmission rates. To put this in perspective, in 2009, the 28 day overall re-admission rate for newborns was 1.1%. The American Hospital Association estimates that 50% of re-admissions are preventable. Another study, which examined breastfed and mix-fed newborns, found that 9.3% of exclusively breastfed babies developed hypernatremia, compared to 2.7% of mix-fed babies.
- The estimated 1,600 newborn who suffer from accidental falls in hospital post-natal units in the United States each year.
- The thousands of babies who have narrowly avoided death or who may have life-long health problems due to insufficient milk intake and related health consequences (including my own daughter).
In so many of these stories and in my own experience, parents followed medical advice and hospital policies designed to encourage breastfeeding and didn’t realize that their babies were starving or at risk of harm. Inadvertently and ironically, their babies were harmed by so called “baby-friendly” policies.
Nearly 20% of babies in the U.S. are born in “baby-friendly” hospitals, and many hospitals are eagerly adopting this model, which requires that hospitals follow 10 steps to promote successful breastfeeding, and this should cause all of us concern. The hospital where I will deliver my son is one of them, as is the other hospital in our city. I have no other options. The International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners, is no better, requiring that their certified lactation consultants uphold “breast is best” by “acting as an advocate for breastfeeding as the child-feeding norm.” What does that even mean? If breastfeeding becomes the standard that all of us are expected to achieve, what happens when achieving that standard is impossible, harmful, or even deadly?
Why do I care so much?
While everyone from health professionals, the media, and policymakers to parents, friends, and strangers in the formula aisle repeat the phrase, “breast is best,” without considering the complex realities of lactation, breast/chestfeeding challenges, modern parenthood, and postpartum psychology, babies and their parents are literally dying. Literally.
Recently, when discussing yet another case of accidental starvation on a Facebook post, someone asked me how many babies have actually died from this. As if there is an acceptable rate of neonatal death. As if “breast is best” is more important than babies.
Does it matter?
Do we really need to promote breastfeeding at all costs, when babies thrive on breast milk, formula, and combinations of both, with nipples, bottles, tubes, supplemental nursing systems, or all of the above, and the differences between breast-fed and formula-fed term babies are nearly nonexistent?
If a single life can be saved by changing our message around infant feeding from “breast is best” to “fed is best,” then it is worth it. We need to stop the almost religious devotion to the “breast is best” message and ill-advised hospital policies from preventing moms and dads from feeding their babies safely and creating situations where parents are so desperate to breastfeed that they would rather take their own lives than feed their babies formula.
I also speak out, because it happened to me.
I recently shared my story of accidentally starving my newborn daughter and the resulting depression that followed in a post on Romper.com. The pressure to breastfeed made me want to die. Specifically, the pressure to breastfeed exclusively, despite the fact that I, like hundreds of thousands of other parents, can’t produce enough milk to feed my babies, and that research shows early supplementation with formula is not only not harmful to babies, it can actually promote longer term breastfeeding.
I wrote about the lengths I went to to breastfeed, a routine which nearly killed me.
I met with two hospital lactation consultants, my midwife, and a private lactation consultant. I took herbal supplements, ate any food that was reputed to increase supply, got a prescription for an expensive drug that’s not FDA approved, pumped 12 times a day, and tried to spend each day focused on feeding her. I’d tell myself, You have one job, damn it, feed the baby. Most days, I barely slept or ate. I cried while I fed her, and hated every moment in between.
I have read and heard a lot of #alternativefacts in the past few days. Let’s go ahead and add “breast is best” to the list, because when lactivism is literally killing people, how can breast be best for those families?
For more information on safe and evidence-based infant feeding and support for new parents, please visit the Fed is Best Foundation.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Featured Image: New Westminster Police Department
Other Images: Steph, all rights reserved.