Monday, August 16, 2010

Review: The Politics of Breastfeeding

“The long journey from nutritionists’ theories to babies’ stomachs means the possibility for errors is endless. The bottles, teats and feeding paraphernalia may include such risky substances as bisphenyl A and phthalates which may contaminate the baby’s feed. Farm, factory, laboratory, packing, transport, storage and kitchen are all managed by human beings who have only a lifetime to learn their tasks. Nature has had millions of years.”

I recently had the chance to read The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business by Gabrielle Palmer. The book is the third fully revised and updated edition, and Palmer states in the preface that she wishes she didn’t have to write it. Twenty years ago when the first edition came out, thousands of babies were dying every day from lack of breastfeeding and unfortunately, it is still going on today. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, over 1.5 million babies die each year because they are not breastfed (how many of them would you bet are black or brown?) We have so much more knowledge now about the amazing properties of breast milk and all of the risks associated with formula feeding. Yet, our culture has embraced the messages from the formula companies, who are becoming ever more aggressive in their marketing campaigns in the face of the mounting evidence to support exclusive breastfeeding.

Palmer’s book should be required reading for everyone, not just women who are mothers or planning to become mothers. What people sometimes fail to realize is that formula is a $2 billion a year business, and the costs to us as a society when infants aren’t breastfed should be of concern to everyone. In fact, I think everyone should read this book for the chapter on the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (WHO Code) alone. Palmer breaks down why the Code is necessary, the scope of the code and gives easy-to-read summaries of the 12 main provisions. For example, you will often hear people say that hospitals should be allowed to give women formula, because there are some who legitimately can’t breastfeed and NEED the formula. The WHO Code calls for no samples of artificial baby milk to be given to mothers, but does make an exception for the donation of formula in special circumstances. The stipulation is that IF a baby needs formula, then whoever provides it is responsible for providing a continuous supply for as long as the baby needs it, ie a full year or more. So bottle-feeding moms should be in full support of the WHO Code because they’d be guaranteed a full year of free formula if their babies truly needed it. But when was the last time that Enfamil did that? My guess is never. (FYI: the United States is a signatory of the Code, although we don’t actually hold any businesses to the standards set forth in it).

In addition to the Code, Palmer tackles everything from why breastfeeding is political, beginning with slavery and covering everything from wet nursing and the history of the infant formula industry, to modern complications like HIV, the global market, the value of mothering and the working woman to the greed inherent in the baby food industry and the Nestle boycott. Palmer has really thought of everything and explains how myths about breastfeeding, hospital births, kicking babies out of the family bed, racism, the WIC program, the cult of formula and on and on have conspired to sabotage women who want to nurse and wreaked havoc on breastfeeding rates around the world.

The book is so quotable I found myself highlighting and dog-earing nearly every page. Palmer gives you the real in a way that is certainly difficult to read, let alone internalize. For example, she says, “Next time you see a poor mother popping a bottle of infant formula into her newborn’s mouth do not sigh, just think how much that little one is contributing to the health of Wyeth, Abbott-Ross, Mead Johnson, Nestle and other baby food and bottle manufacturers. Both the wet-diapered philanthropists and the generous US taxpayer have those companies’ interests at heart.” Ouch!

By the end of the book you’ll be armed with more information than you can probably handle and more angry than you can probably imagine. Palmer herself says the hardest thing about writing this book has been coping with her own despair over the “progress” we’ve made over the last 20 years. She ends the book by saying, “The infant feeding companies and many misguided individuals spent a century telling women that their own milk was not there or was not good enough. Now many women have lost faith in their own bodies. They started by destroying our milk and making us believe their cocktail of coconut and cow juice was better. They will end by destroying our planet and making us believe their wasteland is what we want.”

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