On mandatory breastfeeding

Many people mocked supermodel Gisele Bundchen as a "boob" and a "twit" a couple of years ago when she said the law should require mothers to breastfeed for at least six months. It turns out Bundchen may just have been a little ahead of her time.

As of this summer, hospitals in New York City will no longer make formula available to new mothers and babies unless it is medically indicated, or promote its use in any way. "Latch On NYC" is an initiative of the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

"Motherhood" by Mary Cassatt

Studies have been piling up in recent years that show that breast-fed babies  do better in a number of ways than bottle-fed babies. Still, fewer than one-third of babies are consuming only breast milk at 3 months, and nearly four-fifths of babies have stopped breastfeeding altogether before the recommended minimum of one year. 

And as Linda Lowen wrote recently on About.com,

Part of the problem is that we like our swag -- our goodie bags packed with toys and samples and coupons. Hospitals give these out as a matter of course, and as new moms we're eager for it.

The swag started with the formula companies. And they knew exactly what they were doing. They were hooking women at an emotional and vulnerable time, and from there they reeled us in.

Taking the free samples of formula away from new moms in hospitals protects them from the manufacturers who make it so easy to start a baby off on formula, rather than on the breast, Lowen wrote.

But even some breastfeeding proponents are protesting the new methods for giving breast-feeding a leg up in the nursery. Some women say mothers are already feeling the effects of Latch On NYC, which will go into effect Sept. 3.

New NYC mom Jacoba Urist wrote in a Wall Street Journal blog about her experience trying to have her baby fed with formula at the New York University Medical Center, where she had given birth, so she herself could sleep through the night. Nurses twice said they couldn't find any formula, and brought Urist her baby in the middle of the night to breastfeed, she wrote.

After Sept. 3, lack of cooperation, if such it was among those nurses, will turn to rules in NYC. "With each formula bottle a mother requests, she’ll get a lactation lecture about why she should use breast milk instead," Urist writes of Latch On NYC. She supports breastfeeding in general and does it herself, but thinks the new rules themselves will "prey on women in the days (sometimes hours) after they deliver a baby."

Kara Spak, a new mother and my former colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, made an especially compelling case for leaving formula-feeding moms in peace, in a recent commentary about Latch On NYC in the Sun-Times.

Spak, who is perhaps best known nationally for winning more than $85,000 as a contestant on Jeopardy in 2010, wrote that she intended to breastfeed, but her baby wasn't thriving on breast milk. Ultimately, she had to choose between her baby's health and the breast-feeding ideal. She began feeding her new daughter formula, and continues to do so.

After that traumatic beginning, when Spak talked with her friends with babies, all of whom were committed breast-feeders, it turned out that all of them had had problems nursing, she said.

And that's the travesty here, or one of them, anyway. As Alissa Quart reported in her recent New York Times op-ed piece, "The Milk Wars,"

For most women, there is little institutional support for breast-feeding. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of private-sector workers get paid family leave through their employers. Once mothers go back to work, there are few places where they can pump milk for later use.

Jane Brody's NYT column in response to Quart's piece, "The Ideal and the Real of Breastfeeding," gave readers a look at this longtime health writer's own rocky experience with nursing many years ago, plus a survey of studies and anecdotal evidence that makes it clear that, while breast might be best, it isn't for everyone.

On a more positive note, this year's "Big Latch-On," completed just this weekend, attracted 8,862 nursing babies (and their moms) in 23 countries, a new record.

And check out Birth Story's previous posts on breastfeeding.

Image: Motherhood by Mary Cassatt

On the cusp

This is my 75th post, something of a milestone for me, especially as it coincides with roughly six months of blogging — and a change of status.

I was part of a group laid off last week from the Chicago Sun-Times, where I had loved, loved, loved being a features reporter. The economics of print journalism caught up with me, as they have with so many others.

Where do I go from here? This is no idle question for me, and I'm just beginning to work out the answer.

Over the course of the past couple of years, I have enjoyed learning about new media, and now here I am, with both feet in the 21st century. I blog three times a week, I tweet, I even built my own website (with lots of help).

At the same time, I believe in the values of old media — checking facts, maintaining a certain distance from sources, and allowing both sides to have their say in a civil discourse.

Even while I find myself slipping into the conventions of the new, I hang onto my belief that the best journalism serves the reader's need to know about, and understand, the society she lives in.

I think I have picked a great topic to write about, because it seems to me that birth is on the cusp, just like me. Modern medicine knows how to make birth safe, and yet the maternal mortality rate appears to be going up.

Not only that, but I can't help but notice that while 99 percent of American women have their babies in hospitals, most of the voices making themselves heard in books and blogs belong to women who are dissatisfied with and critical of the hospital experience.

And with Caesarean-section rates rising out of all proportion to any statistical need for their use, those voices are gaining an intelligent and often passionate following.

Where do we go from here? I believe that one thing that will help us answer that question is an understanding of how far we have come.


Informed reporters an endangered species

I have seen a couple of blog posts lately grousing that the "mainstream media" is choosing not to cover this or that event or development, as if to suggest that a conspiracy is afoot to keep people in the dark on a particular topic.

As a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, I am a member of the mainstream media, and I wonder if people have a good sense of what's happening in our industry. Ad revenues have been dropping, mostly as a result of services available on the Internet, and hordes of writers and editors have been bought out or laid off in recent years.

Fewer bodies mean less time per project -- less time to learn about a new topic, and often no time to take on a tough topic.

Just for example, I have seen complaints that many important aspects of childbirth, the topic I address here in Birth Story, don't get the attention they deserve in the media. I couldn't agree more, but I also know that a good airing of the issues would require a depth on the bench that simply isn't there at most media outlets right now.

The Tuesday Science section of the New York Times is one of the rare dedicated sections left that cover science and health. Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Times, said she has noticed that that section addresses health topics more than science ones these days, in a story posted by Mallary Jean Tenore on the Poynter Institute's website.

Readers appear to want stories that relate directly to their own lives, said Angier, who has written a number of science books, including Woman: An Intimate Geography. Her latest is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

"One of the things I try to do when writing about science is make it seem like it's part of your life already by making things into characters and protagonists, even if they're just molecules," she said.

Charles Petit, chief tracker for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, agrees that strong articles on science topics are becoming scarce.

While such issues as stem cell research and global warming still appear on newspapers' front pages, they are less likely to be written by reporters who have a solid understanding of those topics. So the stories are superficial, and readers don't get what they need to understand them, Petit told Tenore.

Even scientists are worried about this trend. In a Pew Research Center study published last year, nearly half of scientists polled said oversimplification of scientific findings in the media is a major problem. A whopping 85% of scientists said that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science.