Ques­tion­ing the in­tegrity of those who ques­tion breast­feed­ing

The Compass - - TRINITY SOUTH -

I’m of­ten asked how long it takes me to write my col­umns. “ That de­pends,” I al­ways an­swer, “on the amount of re­search I need to do.”

Some col­umns prac­ti­cally write them­selves. I ask a ques­tion on the Face­book page or get into a con­ver­sa­tion with a few moth­ers and I’ve got a well-worked out piece with quotes built in. Other weeks I de­cide to write on some­thing that re­quires a lit­tle re­search. Or a lot of re­search.

For­tu­nately, I have friends in just about ev­ery dis­ci­pline of study there is. So if I need a copy of a full study rather than just the ab­stract, it doesn’t take too many calls be­fore I have it.

Some­times I am stuck us­ing sec­ondary sources. In that case, I al­ways find at least three peo­ple to ver­ify the in­for­ma­tion. This might be an opin­ion piece, but as a de­cent and in­tel­li­gent per­son I don’t be­lieve in bas­ing my opin­ion on half-known or par­tially un­der­stood facts.

That is why it galls me to read the opin­ion of Mar­garet Wente in her ar­ti­cle, The Tyranny of Mother’s Milk in the Globe and Mail. Wente has a jour­nal­ism de­gree and far bet­ter ac­cess to re­search and sources than I do. I even be­lieve she’s an in­tel­li­gent woman, though her last col­umn did lit­tle to prove that.

In­stead of bas­ing her opin­ion that pub­lic health of­fi­cials are bul­lies and breast­feed­ing has no ben­e­fits on ac­tual re­search, Wente in­stead chose to lis­ten to a ra­dio show, read a three-year-old ar­ti­cle in the UK Times, and read some blog­ger’s re­views of a con­tro­ver­sial book. On the blog Me­dia Culpa, you can read a full break­down of her sources.

Her “sources” are a story (a very brief seg­ment) from the CBC pro­gram “ White Coat/Black Art” and the top two re­sults on a Google search for the terms “ joan wolf is breast best.”

Wente may be older, wealth­ier, and more highly ed­u­cated than me, but I have to ask my read­ers: who do you trust more? The woman who spent five min­utes on Google, or the one who has spent more than five hours just to write this much?

Wente pre­sented the un­for­tu­nate story of Teena Camp­bell, a B.C. mother who tried breast­feed­ing but was one of the few women with low milk sup­ply. Her son cried, was fussy at the breast and never seemed sat­is­fied.

Camp­bell says she asked the pub­lic health nurses for help and was never of­fered the op­tion of sup­ple­ment­ing with for­mula. At her son’s four-week checkup, she says her doc­tor ac­cused her of starv­ing her child — an as­sess­ment no car­ing mother should ever have to hear. She re­lated this story to CBC’s “ White Coat/Black Art.”

I’m not go­ing to say any­thing about Camp­bell’s per­sonal story. I don’t know her or her cir­cum­stances. I do, how­ever, know that breast­feed­ing can be hard.

Like Camp­bell, I too had a child that fussed and never seemed sat­is­fied. For more than four months I strug­gled with nurs­ing him for a half-hour ev­ery 45 min­utes.

I didn’t get a lot of help or sup­port from the pub­lic health nurses avail­able to me. My child was gain­ing weight so no one was con­cerned.

Dur­ing that time I saw a hand­ful of women whose chil­dren were not gain­ing weight. I saw a nurse sit and com­fort a breast­feed­ing mother who has just been told she should sup­ple­ment with for­mula. I also saw a woman who had switched to for­mula two months prior still wor­ried about her in­fant’s lack of weight gain.

One thing I know is that it is very rare for an in­fant to reach the con­di­tion where it is lit­er­ally starv­ing for lack of nu­tri­tion in our coun­try. There are any num­ber of checks and mea­sures in place to pre­vent in­fants from fail­ure to thrive sit­u­a­tions.

And one thing I can say about breast­milk is that it will never be wa­tered down to make it more affordable and there’s no risk of the mother mix­ing it wrong be­cause she doesn’t un­der­stand or can’t read the di­rec­tions on the bot­tle. These things hap­pen reg­u­larly with for­mula.

I can cer­tainly un­der­stand peo- ple ques­tion­ing whether breast­feed­ing is right for them based on the dif­fi­cul­ties, time re­quire­ment (es­pe­cially for moms who must sup­ple­ment), or lack of suitabil­ity for their life­style. But choos­ing not to breast­feed be­cause you refuse to be­lieve in the ben­e­fits of breast­milk is ridicu­lous.

Wente blames Camp­bell’s sit­u­a­tion on the “ag­gres­sive cam­paign to boost the rate of breast­feed­ing.” She claims that pub­lic health of­fi­cials are spread­ing pro­pa­ganda about the ben­e­fits of breast­feed­ing in or­der to bully moth­ers into choos­ing breast­milk over for­mula.

She quotes au­thor Joan Wolf, whose con­tro­ver­sial book “ Is Breast Best” calls into ques­tion many of the claims of breast­feed­ing ad­vo­cates, writ­ing that “ the ev­i­dence to date sug­gests it prob­a­bly doesn’t make much dif­fer­ence if you breast­feed.”

Of course, this quote is not from Wolf ’s book, but from an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by He­len Rum­be­low in 2009 for the Sun­day Times. I, also, have not read Wolf ’s book, but I do know that I’d rather trust 100 sci­en­tists in in­fant nu­tri­tion over one writer who has a stance on the anti-fem­i­nist pres­sure of breast­feed­ing.

Wente fur­ther goes on to quote a world-fa­mous in­fant nu­tri­tion ex­pert from right here in Canada. Un­for­tu­nately, this quote, also, was taken from the Sun­day Times ar­ti­cle and has since been re­futed by Dr. Michael Kramer as hav­ing been a mis­quote.

In a fol­lowup story ap­pear­ing in The In­de­pen­dent, Dr. Kramer in­sisted he was mis­quoted and went on to state that “there re­ally isn’t any con­tro­versy about which mode of feed­ing is more ben­e­fi­cial for the baby and the mother ... I’m not aware of any stud­ies that have ob­served any health ben­e­fits of for­mula feed­ing. That’s im­por­tant, and any mother weigh­ing the ben­e­fits of breast­feed­ing ver­sus for­mula feed­ing needs to know that.”

In­deed, they do. But if peo­ple like Joan Wolf and Mar­garet Wente had their way we’d all re­main ig­no­rant. The mes­sage that breast­feed­ing pro­vides the best health out­comes puts women un­der pres­sure. So much so that it causes them to break down in dis­tress and go against their own in­stincts to keep their child alive.

Funny that two strong women, fem­i­nists and in­tel­lec­tu­als, would feel that most women are so weak that they can’t make their own de­ci­sion based on ev­i­dence and per­sonal cir­cum­stance.

No one has said we should stop hand­ing out Canada’s Food Guide in schools be­cause it makes par­ents who don’t feed their chil­dren five serv­ings of fruit and veg­eta­bles a day feel too much pres­sure. We have no prob­lem ad­mit­ting that there are fam­i­lies where those five serv­ings aren’t pos­si­ble, whether be­cause of eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion or lack of ed­u­ca­tion.

But in­stead of at­tack­ing the mes­sage, we at­tempt to ad­dress the prob­lems that cause that dis­par­ity. Why should breast­feed­ing be any dif­fer­ent?

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