Breastfeeding: A Reproductive Right

breastfeeding

In 2016 the WHO released a report that concluded that if every child were breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for the first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800,000 children’s lives would be saved globally every year.” (report)

Breastfeeding is for hippies. Who wants their boobs hanging down by their knees?! I signed up for a baby, not a parasite. No way I’m letting my kid bite my nipple! I’m way too busy…not everyone has the luxury of laying around all day nursing a baby, ya know. My cousin told me not to even try…it’s way too hard and painful. The nurse at the hospital said it’s common to need formula in the beginning.

Herein lies the modern day lore of breastfeeding. Hard. Painful. Fringe. Optional.

But the medical literature, unequivocally demonstrates that we should be breastfeeding our babies. In fact, we are learning more and more every day about the species-specific elements of human milk that are in no way represented by other milks, let alone other plants, or some mystery brew of processed fats and synthetic vitamins. The most compelling aspects of this human secretion is perhaps its capacity to influence the microbiome and immune system of an infant, baby, and child in ways that have nothing to do with weight gain or listable ingredients. Called exosomes, there are literal packets of epigenetic information contained in breastmilk in addition to a host of highly tailored bacteria. Is formula really a viable substitute?

How is it that we have been lead to believe that it is?

Mommy Wars while the real battle is being lost

At a time when we most need to wake up, unite, and lift each other up, women – and specifically mothers – are at war with one another. We are carrying the torch of “choice”, exercising our right to self-express, and brandishing our decisions like tribal war paint. When it comes to how our bodies should interface with allopathic medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, the line in the sand zig zags through many a perilous terrain – abortion, vaccination, birth control pills, natural birth, medication, and breastfeeding. But most of us are simply defending choices that we have already made. Choices that we think we made. But are we really making choices or are we simply pawns in a corrupt system designed to disempower us?

Meet Kimberly Seals Allers, an intrepid journalist, and one of the few who shares my perspective on how women have been lead down the garden path.

In her showstopping book, The Big Letdown, she writes:

“…no woman would knowingly choose her own oppression, but when that oppression has been packaged as “choice,” a “lifestyle issue,” and “more convenient,” women end up responding to, not choosing, influences and end up oppressed.”

She suggests that we aren’t really making choices – choosing to bottle vs breastfeed the way we might choose between brands of clothing – we are, in fact, being manipulated into perceiving equal choices where they do not exist, making “uninformed decisions founded on marketing propaganda”.

What does she mean by this?

Well, she means that we have gone too far with modern day faux feminism and we have lost the thread of our vital womanhood, and are being captured by a major consumer market that seeks to capitalize on distorting the mandate of a woman’s choice and liberation. We are being told by corporations and male-dominated medical specialties like obstetrics, Psychiatry, and pediatrics that we are basically broken and require medical support, intervention, and monitoring. With breastfeeding in particular, we are told that it’s hard, that it’s common for our breasts not to perform as biologically expected, and that we should just give up. Allers states:

“Entire formula and baby-food industry were built on the perception that mother’s milk is deficient, that there’s not enough of it, and that the mother isn’t good enough to deliver it appropriately.”

Stockholm Syndrome: Women defending the aggressor

Stock·holm syn·drome

noun

  1. feelings of trust or affection felt in certain cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.

Is it possible, that as a collective, women today are rallying behind the aggressor thinking that they are defending their independence, power, and exercising their freedom of choice?

As a clinician who believes that women should be properly informed before becoming pharmaceutical consumers under the guise of “treatment”, I have been accused of “shaming” those who are “unable” to make a choice other than medication. But, should we really be defending the right to be oppressed? Abused? And otherwise co-opted by an industry that is setup to protect its shareholders’ financial interests? It strikes me that in order to make the best choices for ourselves, we need to know what those choices are, the agendas behind any choices that deviate for our inborn, reproductive, and unique physiologic capacity, and the systemic rot at the core of our socialized belief system that has left us feeling backed into a corner.

Are we, as women, best served by coddling a victim mentality or is that the primary marketing tactic of an industry that sees confusion and vulnerability as a market share waiting to be seized?

The problem with egalitarian we-deserve-what-men-have feminism is that it neglects that we are, in fact, women. Not men. When we are treated like men, as the crowning achievement of our civil liberties efforts, we are expected to work and function without regard to our womanhood. We are not seen or experienced as sacred, and our capacity to create life and nurture must be neutralized/neutered rather than celebrated, leading to confusing flourishes of misogyny.

By looking to be equal to men, we forgot to fight for the things that make us uniquely women – like our ability to birth, lactate, and produce food for our young. These aspects of motherhood were suppressed for the overall goal of being just like men.” – Kimberly Seals Allers

Do we know who we are fighting and what we are fighting for?

Part of the confusion is that we fight each other. “Mommy wars” as they’re called are a symptom of our felt estrangement from own compass. We make decisions, most often out of reactive fear, and we never quite feel right about it, so we overcompensate in vociferous defensiveness. While we are fighting, a landgrab is happening right under our noses. The shaming and guilting is being perpetuated by the corporations that seek to benefit from a perceived valor in failing or otherwise being sick and dependent on pharmaceutical fixes.

And here we find ourselves, “…a generation of women who are collectively breaking new barriers in business, science, and the arts also battle feelings of inadequacy about their ability to perform their biological imperative.”

I call it ‘The Liberation Mystique’ for today’s generation. It’s an equally damaging and subversive message – this idea the we achieve freedom by feeding our babies inferior artificial products and by getting back to working like men…We will never be fully fulfilled until all of our selves – our maternal selves, our sexual selves, our lactating selves, our career-climbing selves – are acknowledged.” – Kimberly Seals Allers

Women are being kept in the dark, and their victimhood is being secured by the imperative not to guilt or shame them for their potential “failures”, “comments made ostensibly to protect and support women when, in fact, they are extremely patronizing, implying that women are feeble, weak, and need to be protected from the truth.”

Allers is here to help turn the lights on some assumptions that lie at the rotting core of anti-feminist processes at work in the realm of reproductive rights. Here are some of the silent messages underpinning of pharmaceutical co-option of women’s sensibilities, bodies, and power:

We are broken

We are born genetically loaded for all manner of incurable diseases from diabetes to Bipolar Disorder. Then we hit menarche and “our hormones” are predictably out of whack and ruining our lives making birth control the only sensible choice. We need reproductive technologies when we decide to get pregnant because our eggs are deformed or our system is mysteriously not cooperating, and then we need intensive monitoring, testing, and a low threshold for intervention during pregnancy and birth because dangerous things can happen otherwise. Our breasts don’t make milk or not enough of it, and so thank god for formula or we’d have babies wasting away before our eyes.

This is how Pharma sees you and your biological capacity and the nocebo effect of this messaging is real.

The truth, according to Allers, is that less than 5% of women are actually physically incapable of breastfeeding, which doesn’t explain the fact that only 23% of American infants are exclusively breastfed at 6 months.

Are we really broken or are we set up to fail?

We are weak

Telling us that we are unable to rely on our biology, and then swooping in with the “perfect solution”, Pharma is there to reassure us in our moment of loss. There there…breastfeeding is so hard and it was big of you to try, but it’s just as well to forget about it. Don’t worry your pretty little head, and just use this formula. It’s nearly as good.

If any vested interests actually wanted to believe that we, as women, should be supported in our efforts to perform a biological imperative, then there would be money, research, and legislation set up to secure and protect this right. As it stands, “lactation holds the dubious distinction of being the only bodily function for which modern medicine has virtually no training or knowledge.” Amusingly, there are 58 studies on erectile dysfunction and 13 on lactation failure. That’s how much we are really trying to understand the nature of the “problem.”

If you stand to profit from the perception that women shouldn’t be expected to breastfeed, then it makes sense that you might set them up to fail and then coddle them with they do. We are set up to fail in many ways including the fact that we allow formula makers – did you know that pharmaceutical companies make formula?! – to fund hospitals, donate to the American Academy of Pediatrics, fund studies, design maternity wards that separate new mothers from their newborns, and provide free samples to new mothers which the data shows leaves them 1.7 times more likely to stop breastfeeding before two weeks.

Maybe they just think we haven’t noticed…because we haven’t.

We are stupid

Perhaps we just wouldn’t notice that we are being played. That we are being stripped of our entitlement to a biological imperative only to be offered a consolation prize that renders us consumers of a product. Life-long consumers, in fact, because as Allers illuminates, formula is “priming our population for diet-related diseases, like diabetes. Simultaneously, they [pharmaceutical companies] are selling the drugs that treat those diseases. Healthy infant nutrition, it turns out, is ultimately a form of preventive medicine, and that is at odds with the profit-driven model of big pharma.”

But, we have been here before…with government subsidy of cigarettes, with public advertising for DDT, and with twilight sleep births, we have been shown that the conditions of government are set up to put profits ahead of our wellbeing. Why haven’t we learned? Why don’t we look upon industry with appropriate circumspection? Why do we then even come to its defense?

Because we are presumed to be asleep and so we follow suit. And because fighting the tide seems to require a degree of activism, strength, and righteousness that some of us just don’t feel we natively possess. So we “go with the flow” instead of “fighting the good fight” and the result is that we fall right in line with the pathetically low expectations of industry that rely on our choosing to research our strollers more than the sensational headlines dismissing the benefits of breastfeeding.

Maybe we won’t notice the fact that, like in the case of vaccination, pharmaceutical companies conduct their own research and then leave it to the reporting of adverse events to inform the relative safety of a product, which may be why the “…authors of a 1991 Scandinavian study reviewing hospital procedures surrounding breastfeeding said, ‘The interference of the medical profession in the twentieth century in the feeding of healthy, term infants may in the future be regarded as a puzzling, uncontrolled, less than well-founded medical experiment.’”

Pediatricians spend much time frightening parents with something like a 1 in 100,000 combined risk from vaccine-preventable diseases when parents question the utility and safety of vaccines…. Yet these very same professionals offer formula samples with the other hand – when the magnitude of health risks associated with the use of formula is 500 times greater.” – Dr. Linda Palmer

We need saving

So, when our bodies are broken, we are too weak to heal them, and too stupid to learn more about the underlying contributors, then the natural extension is that we are ripe for saving, by Pharma.

The conditions are cultivated for this very perception.

At your pediatrician appointment, two things happen, your baby is vaccinated and quantified. Nothing else. No wellness guidance, no parenting support. Interestingly, until 2006, the growth charts that have been used to assess your baby’s “progress” were based on a formula fed sample, artificially obese, rendering breastfed babies comparatively lean. One of the many surreptitious ways that formula comes in to ease the induced anxiety around maternal failure.

And Pharma is here to save you every step of the way: antibiotics for those ear infections, stimulants for that inattention, antacids for that reflux, steroids for the dermatitis, inhalers for the asthma, chemo for the leukemia, and glycemic management for the diabetes, all documented to be increased in those formula fed. Creating lifelong customers is the only sensible business strategy for a profit-based corporation. Even according to this recent study, maternal separation alone led to increased consumption of sucrose and aspartame.

It’s time to demand more than equality

Allers is clear about her conclusion:

“The public’s failure to understand that it is scientifically undisputed that breast milk is the best way to feed an infant is the result of our changing relationship to science, a general misunderstanding of what science should be, and the increasing influence of money and society on the direction of scientific research.”

Understand that grappling with the challenges of a society built to undermine a woman’s inherent biological uniqueness and power, is no small feat. But perhaps, this is where we are meant to focus our energy, activism, money, and attention: on demanding extended paid maternity leave on the order of 1-2 years like some more progressively woman and family-centric societies, innovation in the realm of pumping and milk storage, and a restoration of nursing as a sacred practice never to be judged, maligned, or marginalized.

Imagine if the millions wasted on developing and marketing a potentially dangerous substitute was spent on creating the policies and resources mothers needed to easily nurse their own babies and then making sure any necessary substitutes were as rigorously tested as possible.”

Allers concludes:

“This is why talking about breastfeeding ultimately leads to talking about the structure of society, That includes hospital maternity care, the quality of maternity leave policies, and the availability of viable options for flexible work scheduling. Add to that an industrialized infant feeding system, a culture that glorifies breast-baring Victoria’s Secret ads but that still deems breastfeeding photos on Facebook to be lewd and controversial, and a health care system where infant formula is given out for free at hospitals and a high-quality breast pump costs $350. Then, somehow, mothers or their bodies are blamed for any breastfeeding failure, when, in fact, the odds are stacked against women before they even begin.”

As Harriet Tubman famously stated: “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Know, women, that it is time to reclaim, truly reclaim, our primal femininity. This lies, not in playing the part of a man, but in demanding, owning, and celebrating our inbuilt entitlement to an experience of our bodies that defies commandeering, control, and management. This experience can only be described as mystical and if only we could shed our shackles, we would see nothing but that truth.

August 18, 2017

Kelly Brogan MD

Kelly Brogan, MD, is a Manhattan-based holistic women's health psychiatrist, author of the book 'A Mind of Your Own' and co-editor of the landmark textbook, Integrative Therapies for Depression. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from MIT in Systems Neuroscience. She is board certified in psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative holistic medicine, and is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. She is a mother of two.

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