A skeptical look at breast-feeding

The anger and ridicule Gisele Bundchen attracted when she advocated a "worldwide law" requiring new mothers to breast-feed for six months mostly has to do, I would say, with the fact that mere mortals perceive she shares very few of the frustrations the rest of us deal with us on a daily basis.

But I think some of the rage comes from a certain rancor around the topic of breast-feeding, which has been presented in the last several years as the only acceptable choice for nourishing an infant, not only from a health standpoint, but also from a moral one. Not breast-feeding — for whatever reason, including such a worthy and often necessary one as a full-time job — has come to be regarded as thoughtless at best, abusive at worst.

But do women who reach for the formula deserve the sneers they get from breast-feeding partisans? Writing in The Atlantic last year, Hanna Rosin, journalist and mother of three, made "The Case Against Breast-Feeding," and an intriguing argument it is.

First, let it be said that Rosin did breast-feed her children. However, by No. 3, some of the negative aspects of breast-feeding — the huge investment of time it requires, and the toll Rosin believes it takes on the ideal of co-parenting with Dad, to name a couple — were making her wonder if the health benefits were really all they were cracked to be.

Rosin found evidence that they aren't. She writes:

Most of the claims about breast-feeding’s benefits lean on research conducted outside the lab: comparing one group of infants being breast-fed against another being breast-fed less, or not at all. Thousands of such studies have been published, linking breast-feeding with healthier, happier, smarter children. But they all share one glaring flaw.

The flaw is that the studies are observational, not randomized controlled trials, Rosin writes. Other variables than just breast-feeding might more easily affect the conclusions drawn from an observational study.

Exploring some of the studies that have given breast-feeding its good reputation, Rosin concludes that there are "clear indications" breast-feeding protects against gastrointestinal disease, at least in some cases, but only "murky correlations with a whole bunch of  long-term conditions." The evidence on enhanced intelligence in breast-fed individuals suggests "a small advantage," Rosin writes.

She writes:

So overall, yes, breast is probably best. But not so much better that formula deserves the label of “public health menace,” alongside smoking. Given what we know so far, it seems reasonable to put breast-feeding’s health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things—modesty, independence, career, sanity—on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision. But in this risk-averse age of parenting, that’s not how it’s done.

A “boob” on the right side of breast-feeding

New mom Gisele Bundchen touched off a firestorm of criticism when she told the British edition of Harper's Bazaar that mothers around the world should be required by law to breast-feed for six months.

Gisele Bundchen/Wikimedia Commons

Gisele Bundchen

Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan called Bundchen "a silly twit." Mark Marino, writing on CNN Entertainment's Marquee Blog, ventured that the 30-year-old Brazilian-born supermodel "might have made a boob of herself," based on responses from indignant readers of the blog.

Those included one woman identified as "Angela," who said that having "just popped out a kid" seemed to have given Bundchen the idea she "knows what's best for children and mothers."

Eagan admitted that her "catty little heart leaps with joy" to see a woman so "lucky in looks, in love, in life" whose "perfect foot" keeps finding its way into her "perfect pouty mouth," first touting her painless home birth eight months ago, now with her pronouncement that everyone should be legally required to breast-feed. And in that, Eagan probably stands in for a great many of us who can't help but notice that Bundchen's life is not exactly lived in the trenches.

Bundchen did back down from her provocative statement, writing in her blog, "I am not here to judge.... I think as mothers we are all just trying our best."

Of her backtracking, Eagan wrote, "Too late! Too late!"

But here's the thing. Bundchen has a right to her opinion (she did say it was her opinion), and she is in a position where people ask her her opinion and then print it up in glossy magazines.

Here's another thing: She's not wrong. She's not saying parents should hang their kids out the window by their heels; she's saying every mother should breast-feed for six months.

Sure, plenty of women can't breast-feed, others simply don't want to, and working mothers in this country, at least, have to be highly motivated to keep it up for any length of time. And the logistics — and the politics — of enacting a "worldwide law" mandating six months of breast-feeding for every baby make it, let's say, unlikely.

However, the health benefits of breast-feeding are well documented. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics join Bundchen in recommending that infants be breast-fed exclusively for at least six months. The AAP suggests mothers continue to breast-feed, even as a baby begins to eat other foods, for at least a year in all; the WHO recommends two years or more.

"Breast-feeding can decrease the incidence or severity of conditions such as diarrhea, ear infections and bacterial meningitis. Some studies also suggest that breast-feeding may offer protection against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), diabetes, obesity and asthma among others (conditions)," the AAP stated in its 2005 position on breast-feeding.

Researchers recently teased out some of the specifics of the good things breast-feeding does for babies, concluding that breast-feeding represents "an intriguing strategy" to maximize an infant's chances for survival.

But breast-feeding still gets a bad rap from a squeamish public, and even, down in those trenches, from doctors.

"It is tragic that a supermodel-mom dispenses better advice than many doctors and most governmental agencies," wrote pediatrician/author Jay Gordon MD on the Huffington Post. "We must listen if her advice and high profile can save babies' lives."

Lastly, I must say that the world is full of women who think that the fact that they popped out a kid or two makes them experts on parenting. Just usually not as big an expert as people who have never popped out a kid.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Negotiating life’s thresholds

In an article in the Aug. 2 issue of the New Yorker, the surgeon/writer Atul Gawande MD considers Americans' ars moriendi, the art of dying — or rather our lack of one. There are some interesting parallels with birth, such as our society's propensity to throw technology at situations that often might be better left to nature, taking its course in its own time.

What I found fascinating was the honesty with which Gawande writes about his own discomfort with talking with patients who are looking to him to guide them through a fundamentally human experience, one his skills as a surgeon don't equip him to handle.

Of the team of physicians treating Sara Monopoli, a young mother dying of lung cancer, Gawande writes:

You’d think doctors would be well equipped to navigate the shoals here, but at least two things get in the way. First, our own views may be unrealistic. A study led by the Harvard researcher Nicholas Christakis asked the doctors of almost five hundred terminally ill patients to estimate how long they thought their patient would survive, and then followed the patients. Sixty-three per cent of doctors overestimated survival time. Just seventeen per cent underestimated it. The average estimate was five hundred and thirty per cent too high. And, the better the doctors knew their patients, the more likely they were to err.

Second, we often avoid voicing even these sentiments. Studies find that although doctors usually tell patients when a cancer is not curable, most are reluctant to give a specific prognosis, even when pressed. More than forty per cent of oncologists report offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. In an era in which the relationship between patient and doctor is increasingly miscast in retail terms—“the customer is always right”—doctors are especially hesitant to trample on a patient’s expectations. You worry far more about being overly pessimistic than you do about being overly optimistic. And talking about dying is enormously fraught. When you have a patient like Sara Monopoli, the last thing you want to do is grapple with the truth. I know, because [Monopoli's oncologist, Dr. Paul] Marcoux wasn’t the only one avoiding that conversation with her. I was, too.

Gawande had been called in to talk with Monopoli about surgery on a secondary, treatable thyroid cancer. Though he thought she would die long before the thyroid cancer became a serious problem, Gawande relates miserably dancing around the subject of death with her.

Determined to be more honest in talking with patients with a poor prognosis, Gawande tried to communicate the stark truth as he saw it to a woman with advanced colon cancer. After she went on to have a better-than-expected recovery,  she told Gawande that their early conversation had made her feel "as if I'd dropped her off a cliff."

In a long section on the importance and nuance of effective communication, Gawande concludes that "the words you use matter."

It appears that conversation — just words — during a terminal illness might help people avoid medical interventions. Gawande cites a 2004 initiative by Aetna insurance company that allowed terminal patients to proceed with aggressive medical treatment, while at the same time using the emotional supports of a hospice facility. (The two approaches are not typically used together.) The patients' hospital stays decreased by more than two-thirds, and the cost of their care went down nearly a quarter.

"The program’s leaders had the impression that they had simply given patients someone experienced and knowledgeable to talk to about their daily needs. And somehow that was enough—just talking," Dr. Gawande writes.

He writes,

We pay doctors to give chemotherapy and to do surgery, but not to take the time required to sort out when doing so is unwise.... But the issue isn’t merely a matter of financing. It arises from a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is—what, in other words, we should and should not be paying for doctors to do.

My apologies to Gawande for shoehorning his thoughts on death into this ongoing discussion of birth, but I think his honest consideration of a doctor's role in helping people negotiate life's last major threshold is worth thinking about relative to the first.

“For God’s sake, please breast-feed”

A new study, the subject of a story by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times this week, reveals a little more of the magic of breast milk. It turns out that complex sugars in human milk encourage the growth of "good" bacteria that form a lining in a baby's gut, protecting her from dangerous microbes.

The baby can't digest the complex sugar, but the bifido bacteria can. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce German, Carlito Lebrilla and David Mills and colleagues describe the "intriguing strategy" lactation represents — to nourish microbes that can in turn protect a baby who has not yet developed an immune system of his own.

Dr. German told Wade, "We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldn’t digest. Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy — mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby."

The researchers used mass-spectometry-based tools to examine the structures of the complex sugars in breast milk. Their findings made the researchers think that milk holds even more secrets, even perhaps some that could help struggling newborns or even older humans.

Said Dr. Mills, "It’s all there for a purpose, though we’re still figuring out what that purpose is. So for God’s sake, please breast-feed."

New York delivers for midwives

Last Friday, New York's Gov. David Paterson signed into law A8117b-S5007a, the so-called Midwifery Modernization Act, which removes the requirement for midwives to obtain a written practice agreement from a physician or hospital to practice in New York State. The bill will take effect in three months.

Paterson's signature was by no means a sure thing — the Democratic governor, who is not seeking re-election in the fall, vetoed thousands of bills this summer, and he waited until the very last possible day to sign the midwifery bill.

Not only that, but the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the new political arm of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, lobbied against the legislation. The group argued that it would make midwife-assisted birth less safe, as midwives who did not have formal relationships with doctors might not be able to access medical care in an emergency.Pregnant Graffiti WPAs have been a condition of practice for midwives in New York since 1992.

But old certitudes and worst-case-scenarios fell flat in Albany this summer.

The closing of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City last spring created a crisis for those relatively few women seeking home birth with midwives, and provided an object lesson in the difficulties the requirement for a written practice agreement could create. By June, seven midwives who had had WPAs with St. Vincent's were still scrambling to find doctors willing and/or able to formally partner with them, and hundreds of mothers who had been planning to deliver at home were in a state of limbo.

Beyond the immediate concerns, though, the ease with which the bills sailed through the New York legislature — the vote was unanimous in the Senate — suggests that midwifery has attained a mature level of acceptance in New York, which has perhaps 900 midwives, more than any other state.

Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, for example, one of the bill's sponsors, had her children with midwives, including two home births.

Groups that represent midwives emerged as effective lobbyists for the bill, mustering thousands of calls, emails and signatures on petitions.

Meanwhile, ACOG's efforts were notable for gaffes like a quote in the New York Times from Donna Montalto,  executive director of ACOG's New York division, who said physicians might balk at providing emergency care without a WPA.

“What obstetrician who has never seen the patient, doesn’t know the midwife, and happens to be at home at their son’s baseball game is going to say, ‘Sure, I’ll come in and take care of your patient,’?” Montalto said.

Perhaps most importantly, the new act affirms the view that birth is a natural event, and not necessarily a medical one. New York legislators have given midwives a vote of confidence, one that could portend a significant shift in attitudes about childbirth.

"Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen