Monday, September 9, 2013

The devolution of breastfeeding: part one

Devolution - n. formal: descent to a lower or worse state; biology: evolutionary degeneration (Oxford English Dictionary, 2013)

Much of contemporary society is dominated by child-feeding perceptions and practices which I can only qualify as retrograde. In the last hundred years or so, we have regressed in varying degrees from embracing the original default food and feeding system - breast milk and breastfeeding - in favor of an illusion of normalcy served up via synthetic substitutes based mainly on the milk of a species that's totally alien to ours. Myriad explanations are routinely offered as to why this is so; but there's no need to await consensus before concluding that this is indeed the case.

Not surprisingly popular media provide a mirror image of an artificial feeding culture. It doesn't require cynicism, only a measure of awareness, to understand that these information avenues rely for success not in leading the charge for change but in reflecting the status quo. The following random assemblage of the often curious, sometimes frankly weird, and - in terms of who we are as a species - the exceedingly alien makes this point eloquently. My purpose: using real-world examples, describe attitudes about breasts, breast milk and breastfeeding that are incompatible with Nature's plan for our mothers and children. And just as comics sometimes assure their audiences, I swear, I'm not making up any of this stuff.

Top down or bottom up?
Darwin, Australia, 27 February 2004.

A row erupted today over a police ban on traditional Aboriginal women doing as they have always done for the past 70,000 years – dance topless in public. Aborigines are furious that a group of traditional women were moved on by police, including an Aboriginal officer, from a public park in Alice Springs last week because they were dancing without their tops. The women pointed out that dancing topless is part of Aboriginal culture, and anyway millions of people around the world had already seen them dancing like that on television, such as at the opening ceremony for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Undeterred, a troupe of topless Aboriginal dancers welcomed Britain’s Prince Charles to Alice Springs in March 2005.

Babes in harms
Auckland, New Zealand, 1 August 2004. 

Women’s Health Action in New Zealand prepared a 15-second ad to run on television during World Breastfeeding Week 1-7 August 2004. Depicting a little girl, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, pretending to breastfeed her doll, the Television Commercial Approvals Bureau labelled it “unsuitable for viewing by children under ten” (it was permitted to run at night when the kiddies were presumably in bed). No one said so explicitly, but somehow I can’t believe there would have been a problem had the same little girl been bottle-feeding.

No tits for some EU tots
London, England, 21 & 24 May 2004.

The newspaper headline in London reads “No nipples, please, we’re British as breastfeeding film is censored” while that in Sydney announces “Nipple causes ripple in the land that invented Page 3 girls”. What is all the fuss about? Both reports concern less than five seconds of a 45-second film encouraging people to vote in the 2004 European Parliament elections. The film shows a suckling baby trying to decide which breast to feed from. The idea is simple – to show people making choices, like voters at the ballot box.

The original version (see picture), which was produced by the Parliament’s audio-visual department, is considered suitable for nearly 400 million Europeans, and thus shown on television and in thousands of movie theatres in 23 countries. In Britain, however, where bare breasts are a daily staple in tabloid newspapers, the film is shown in censored form. The breastfeeding sequence survives but shots of the offending nipple are edited out by having the baby’s hand obscure it. A spokesman at the Cinema Advertising Association defends the censorship, saying that “The infant was contemplating the breasts in rather an adult way.”

But at least the film is shown, unlike in Ireland where the head of the European Parliament’s Irish Office, Jim O’Brien, is quoted as saying: “I decided that due to sensitivities here, this is not the right image to promote anything in Ireland, unless it is of a medical or scientific nature.”

Church group not playing around
Sydney, Australia, 13 June 2004.

Mothers at the weekly playgroup run by Saint Peter’s (Cooks River) Anglican Church have been told that they “might offend passing tradesmen or ethnic groups if they continue to breastfeed in the main hall, where their children play”. A group of the women have left the playgroup in disgust at the edict, which they have labelled discriminatory and regressive.

Trial and error
Riverside, California, USA, 26 April 2005.

A 49-year-old emergency-room nurse from Holland, Ingrid Ann Crane, was sentenced, in Riverside, California, to three years in prison on one count of “a lewd act with an infant” for breastfeeding another woman’s child while on duty. This is how the journalist described the case:

• According to co-workers, who filed a complaint, the nurse was engaging in an “unsanitary and disgusting” act.
• According to the judge, who denied probation, it was questionable whether the nurse’s remorse was genuine.
• According to the deputy district attorney, Michelle Paradise, the defendant “violated the most vulnerable people of our society”.
• According to another mother, who accused the nurse of breastfeeding her child, she “interfered with a natural loving bond of mother and baby to satisfy her own sick sexual needs”.
• According to the law-enforcement officer, Julie Lowry, assigned to investigate, it was the “most bizarre case I’ve ever encountered” in 17 years’ experience.

It seems clear enough that Ingrid Ann Crane has a psycho-affective disorder that needs professional attention, although it is unlikely to be dealt with as long as she’s incarcerated. Beyond her needs, however, what concerns me more is the extreme hostility of the disapproving language used to describe her actions. Are we ready to accept, unchallenged, use of words like “unsanitary”, “disgusting”, “violated”, “sick sexual needs”, and “most bizarre” in conjunction with breastfeeding?

Frontier justice
Portland, Oregon, USA, 29 August 2005. 

The headline reads: “Meth mom sentenced to 18 months in prison”. The charge: forcible ingestion of a controlled substance called methamphetamine, which is an extremely addictive synthetic stimulant of the central nervous system sold illegally in pill form, capsules, powder and chunks. Prosecutors hailed this “hallmark case” because it directly holds addicted mothers accountable for the harm they cause their children.

Jennie Thomas of Salem, Oregon, pleaded guilty to a felony: breastfeeding her baby while high on meth. The case arose when she took her nine-month-old son to a hospital because he was not well. Staff noticed that the infant seemed highly agitated and tests showed that he had an extremely high concentration of meth in his system.

Television news anchor Anna Song: “Prosecutors describe this as yet another way of tackling the meth problem by going after mothers who knowingly endanger their children by feeding them drug-tainted breast milk. Nursing is one of the most intimate connections a mother can share with her child, but what if, in doing that, a mother is putting her child at risk?”

A grandmother interviewed: “I think it’s really cruel. I don’t think that’s a good thing at all.
To me, endangering a child … it’s one of the worst things you can do.”

Sarah Morris, Deputy District Attorney for Marion County: “We as prosecutors have a responsibility to the children in our community to hold parents accountable for the actions against them.”

Since Jennie Thomas’ husband is also an admitted meth user, both of her children have been removed from her care and placed in state custody while she serves her sentence.

Now, then, what are we to make of a situation like this?

For starters, Jennie Thomas has a serious problem of addiction that requires expert treatment, not incarceration. Furthermore, while separation certainly eliminates further risk to her baby through contaminated milk, this is hardly ideal either for the short-term psychosocial health of mother or child or their future prospects together. Two wrongs still don’t make a right.

But here is what really gets my attention about this story: the parallel between the impact of routine, i.e. non-emergency, formula feeding and the language used here to describe holding mothers accountable for the harm they cause their children; going after mothers who knowingly endanger their children; putting a child at risk through feeding behavior, which is one of the worst things you can do; and having a responsibility to children in the community to hold parents accountable for the actions against them.

What about all those moms then who put their kids at risk by pouring infant formula down their throats? How long before we have understood the appalling nutritional mediocrity of normalized artificial feeding, this conscious deviation from the biological norm for the young of our species with its devastating consequences for the health of mothers and children alike throughout the life course?

More real-world examples of attitudes that are incompatible with Nature's plan will be posted in part two, next week.

James Akre prepared this post for The Alpha Parent. It is adapted from his book "The problem with breastfeeding. A personal reflection" (Hale Publishing, 2006). As founder, chairman and CEO of the International Breastfeeding Support Collective, James focuses on the sociocultural dimension of the universal biological norm for feeding infants and young children, and on pathways for returning breastfeeding to the realm of the ho-hum ordinary everywhere. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Breastfeeding Journal and of the Scientific Advisory Committee of La Leche League France, and past member of the board of directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE).

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