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

The things they carry

The latest figures on global maternal mortality, which I've written about in the last two posts here on Birth Story, are encouraging. But are they correct?

The new figures, in a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are much more positive than the ones the World Health Organization came up with in 2006. Advocate groups fear that the brighter statistics will slow down progress on making birth safe for women in developing countries.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has made a specialty of chronicling the dire state of women in the world's least prosperous areas, wrote in his blog "On the Ground" on April 16 that "when women die in childbirth in poor countries, nobody keeps track, and so all these figures are very rough estimates."

Imagine that. A mother dies, and nobody even writes it down.

I am a regular reader of Kristof's column, as he consistently mines the rich vein of human interest stories about indigent women.

Kristof has done some great video work on "On the Ground."  Video gives a face -- and a voice -- to the actual women who are living the difficult lives he writes about.

I would recommend taking a look at Kristof's videos from eastern Congo, although some of them are terribly upsetting, as many of these women have been brutalized in the political unrest there.

Here is one video that is simply illuminating, "What Are You Carrying?"

Nature is not always our friend

The World Health Organization estimates that the "natural" maternal mortality rate, which women with no access to health care could be expected to suffer, is between 1,000 and 1,500 per 100,000 births.

In Ireland, which has the world's lowest rate of maternal mortality, one woman dies per 100,000 births, so attention to laboring mothers makes a difference. In 2005, the worldwide maternal mortality rate was 402 deaths per 100,000 births.

The highest rates occur in politically unstable parts of Africa and Asia, notably Sierra Leone (2,000 deaths) and Afghanistan (1,900). The rate in the United States is 13, up from 12 the previous year. (All figures are from 2005.)

WHO defines maternal mortality as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, regardless of the duration or site of the pregnancy, as long as the cause of death is related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management, and not from accidental or incidental causes.

Forceps/vacuum birth hazard: Asia survey

One big surprise of the WHO survey of Asian births was that "operative vaginal delivery" -- the use of forceps or vacuum -- had the highest death rate for mothers of any method.

Ninety-seven women died during the 108,000 surveyed births. Of those, 53 died during spontaneous vaginal births, as would be expected, given that those were the majority of births (75,000 deliveries), for a rate of less than .1 percent.

However, of 3,465 OVD births, nine mothers died, a rate of nearly .3 percent. In a commentary that accompanied the WHO report in the medical journal The Lancet, the editors called the figures "a sobering reminder of the dangers of operative deliveries," although they noted that most OVDs are "high-risk situations that cannot be easily avoided."

Twenty-three of the 16,500 mothers having Caesaean sections "with indications" during labor died (more than .1 percent), and one woman died of the 554 having elective C-sections during labor (a rate of nearly .2 percent).

The report also found that women undergoing elective Caesarean section were  far more likely to spend time after the birth in intensive care than women whose births were spontaneous.

The irony is that while many unnecessary C-sections are being performed in some areas, women in other areas who desperately need them are not able to get them, the WHO report notes.

Birth in Asia — The WHO survey

The rising rate of birth by Caesarean sections has hit Asia, with China reporting that 46 percent of its births now end in surgery, according to a global survey by the World Health Organization reported in the medical journal The Lancet.

Nine countries were targeted in the WHO study -- Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam -- with births in both small and large institutions examined for two or three months in the capital city and two other regions in each country. In all, about 108,000 births were scrutinized at 122 institutions.

China had the highest rate of Caesarean births in the survey. The country with the next-highest rate was Vietnam, with 36 percent, followed by Thailand, with 34 percent, and Sri Lanka, with 31 percent.

Cambodia had the lowest rate of Caesarean births, 15 percent, which is the rate the WHO and other health groups recommend. The C-section rate over all for the Asian countries surveyed was 27 percent.