National Childhood Obesity Month: the links between infant feeding and obesity Part 2

In conjunction with National Childhood Obesity Month,  we are zeroing in on what obesity looks like in the U.S. and how infant and young child feeding (IYCF) and other perinatal factors influence the obesity epidemic. Here’s the next installment of  Our Milky Way’s roundup of contributors’ work relating to childhood obesity.

Photo credit: WIC Image Gallery

Picking back up with  Sylvia Metzger’s, MPH, MSN, RN, CNL, IBCLC, LCCE work, her  research has also informed us on how paternal health affects babies’ weight. “Every baby’s destiny can actually begin before conception, reflecting both the paternal and maternal health status,” Metzger explains.  “Dad’s lifestyle and health before conception actually matter, and can also pre-program a baby’s health trajectory.  It is not just the mom’s intrauterine environment.  Paternal obesity prior to conception, for example, can increase the incidence of obesity and metabolic disorders in offspring, independently from the maternal status.  But how much do we focus on fathers during preventative care visits?”


Dana Dabelea’s, MD, PhD work exploring gestational diabetes (GDM) has shown that GDM diagnosis increases the risk of diabetes and obesity in a mother’s offspring.  Dabelea and colleagues studied fuels that feed the growing baby – such as fats of various types and sugars- all of which come through the placenta and umbilical cord to nourish the fetus. “It turns out that fatter babies (measured with an instrument called the PedPod®) had mothers with higher glucose levels during pregnancy, even if these levels were still considered in the “normal” range,” she reports. “We followed the offspring and looked at what influence postnatal feeding had as well. It turns out that breast-feeding for at least 6 months largely reverses the effects of GDM on fatness in children.  I think this was exciting, since it meant that there are things that can be done very early in life that can reduce the later risk of obesity and diabetes….One additional thing of great interest – in studies of stem cells grown from the umbilical cords of these babies by my basic science colleagues, they have shown that obese mothers unknowingly ‘program’ these stem cells to be more likely to turn into fat cells than muscle or bone cells – some of the first human evidence of a possible pathway that changes how an infant responds to their environment.”

Photo by Jorge Salvador on Unsplash


Dabelea’s research illuminates epigenetic and racial disparity components too. The SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study has shown diabetes to disproportionately affect minority children. Dabelea explains: “Type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes) is actually most common among non-Hispanic white youth, although recently we are seeing increasing trends in minority groups, especially Hispanics. There are several factors at work in type 2 diabetes, but we don’t yet know all of the story. First, a higher proportion of minority youth are overweight or obese, which is the major risk factor for later diabetes. Second, many of these are offspring of mothers who themselves have diabetes, GDM, or even just obesity as they enter pregnancy. Such women pass to their babies an increased susceptibility for obesity and diabetes, a phenomenon called the “vicious cycle” – where the risk of obesity and diabetes are passed to the next generation without involving genetics. Lack of breastfeeding, or only a short duration of breastfeeding likely also plays a role, since it appears that breastfeeding reduces both obesity and diabetes among offspring.”

Dabelea and colleagues conducted a pilot randomized controlled trial of obesity prevention among American Indian children aged 7 to 10, called Tribal Turning Point. They found that a combination of parent-child sessions aimed at behavioral motivation for change, along with a toolbox of community activities, cooking classes and fun things for kids to do, resulted in lower weight gain among the group that got the intervention. “This kind of work is aimed at helping stem the tide of the epidemic in the highest risk group – American Indians,” she says. “But counter forces are strong – an abundance of calories, often of poor quality, the ease with which we can live without much physical activity and potential environmental factors such as air pollution and endocrine disrupting chemicals, are all promoting dangerous levels of obesity.”

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.


More, recent research on childhood obesity: 

Exclusive breastfeeding can attenuate body-mass-index increase among genetically susceptible children: A longitudinal study from the ALSPAC cohort— This research shows that  exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) to five months has substantial effect in decreasing BMI among children at higher genetic risks. It suggests that interventions aimed at reducing the risks of overweight and obesity across the lifespan should start in very early childhood to be impactful, which makes EBF a key candidate intervention. 

Why and how human donor milk may curb obesity in preterm infants— This work explores why and how donor breast milk may be more beneficial than pre-term artificial milk. 

Childhood Obesity and Breastfeeding Rates in Pennsylvania Counties—Spatial Analysis of the Lactation Support Landscape— This work explores the inverse relationship between geographic access to professional Lactation support providers (LSPs) and childhood obesity in Pa. counties. 

National Childhood Obesity Month: the links between infant feeding and obesity Part 1

Photo credit: WIC Image Gallery

Worldwide, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.  Anthropologist Daniel Sellen of the University of Toronto reminded participants at the “Nutrition and Nurture in Infancy and Childhood: Bio-Cultural Perspectives” conference that no country has yet managed to avoid the occurrence of childhood obesity. Sellen pointed out that 90 percent of countries experience the double burden of malnutrition; simultaneously experiencing inadequate food access and obesity.

This National Childhood Obesity Month, in two installments, let’s zero in on what obesity looks like in the U.S. and how infant and young child feeding (IYCF) and other perinatal factors influence the obesity epidemic. Here’s a round-up of Our Milky Way contributors’ work around childhood obesity. 

Breastfeeding socializes taste. As Penny Van Esterik, Professor Emerita, York University, Toronto and Adjunct Professor, University of Guelph pointed out in Breastfeeding: where healthy and sustainable food systems begin, infant feeding can set up children for the “industrial palate” contributing to the obesity pandemic.  Dr. Julie Mennella’s research on flavor learning has shown that sensory experiences, beginning early in life, can shape preferences. “Mothers who consume diets rich in healthy foods can get children off to a good start because flavors are transmitted from the maternal diet to amniotic fluid and mother’s milk, and breastfed infants are more accepting of these flavors,” Mennella writes in Ontogeny of taste preferences: basic biology and implications for health. “In contrast, infants fed formula learn to prefer its unique flavor profile and may have more difficulty initially accepting flavors not found in formula, such as those of fruit and vegetables.”

Photo credit: WIC Image Gallery

Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner-Maffei shared her notes from Nutrition During Pregnancy and Lactation: Exploring New Evidence – A Workshop. Specifically,  Kjersti Aagaard of Baylor College of Medicine reported on the impact of maternal diet on the developing infant microbiome. Turner-Maffei noted:

    • The diversity of vaginal microbes decreases in pregnancy. The neonate’s early biome looks very different than that of the vagina. 
    • The neonate’s microbiome may reflect the amount of fat in the mother’s diet. High fat diet (>35% of calories as fat) is more correlated with infant dysbiosis* than with maternal obesity. (This difference persists—it seems irreversible with dietary changes later.) [*dysbiosis=imbalance in the microbiome—a less than desirable microbial community]
    • We should stop focusing on treating obesity in pregnancy/lactation and focus instead on supporting dietary change. Within days of changing the diet (less added sugar and fat and more fiber), the mother’s metabolic markers and those in her milk change for the better. 
    • Similarly, “we must come to value nutrition over weight.” 
    • Encourage nutrient quality: “fresh from the source produce” is best. Address equity issues in access to fresh produce.
    • Today’s research does not show that giving probiotics in pregnancy protects mother or infant.
    • Fun fact: Did you know that “there are Pseudomonas species that can exist solely on caffeine”???!!!
Photo credit: WIC Image Gallery

The microbiome comes into play in Sylvia Metzger’s, MPH, MSN, RN, CNL, IBCLC, LCCE work with The Human Microbiome Project— a National Institute of Health initiative with the goal to study microbiota. “We have plenty, almost 5 pounds of our body weight,” Metzger points out. Microbiota have a shockingly significant impact on human health and disease. “Our gut microbiota work for us really hard,” Metzger continues.  “They [affect] our immunity, metabolism, endocrine system, and even our neural pathways.  I had no idea that an obese patient can have very different gut bacteria than a lean counterpart, and that these microbiota can epigenetically influence the patient’s metabolism.  The wrong bacteria can literally reprogram our metabolism towards obesity.  I look forward to learning more about how to feed our microbiota right – for now, my understanding is that they love to munch on prebiotics… Breastmilk serves as an excellent prebiotic and is full of human milk oligosaccharides, which can, for example, decrease the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, a devastating condition affecting predominantly premature infants.  The therapeutic potential in treating illness with underlying dysbiosis through manipulation of the enteric microbiome, which would also include autoimmune conditions (Crohn’s, diabetes type I) may be tremendous.

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

National Preparedness Month: the U.S.’s deficit in Infant and Young Child Feeding preparedness during emergencies

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

 The editors of more than 200 health journals worldwide just released  ​​Call for Emergency Action to Limit Global Temperature Increases, Restore Biodiversity, and Protect Health ahead of The United Nations General Assembly this month. The authors urge critical action to curb global temperature increases in an effort to  “halt the destruction of nature, and protect health.” 

This  piece details how hotter temperatures are taxing public health systems:

“…Hurricane Ida caused dozens of deaths across several states from flash flooding and other impacts. With the power grid down, some died from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by using generators. In the aftermath of the storm in Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, local officials have been working to provide transportation for those who need dialysis and other medical care. Earlier this summer, hundreds died in a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest… Wildfire smoke, increasingly clogging skies with dangerous levels of air pollution, causes spikes in emergency room visits.” 

Many of the current humanitarian crises are related to the climate crisis.  It’s driving human displacement which comes with a multitude of consequences. More on that here

Photo by Adrien Taylor on Unsplash
“While filming a climate change documentary called Thirty Million for the United Nations, I was blown away by the beauty of the Bangladeshi people — both in their character and appearance. Bangladesh faces losing 18% of its land, displacing thirty million people, with one metre sea-level rise. At the end of Ramadan every year, the country has one of the world’s largest internal migrations of people going from the cities to their home villages to celebrate the holiday. This type of migration may soon become across borders as climate change makes life difficult in this stunning country.”

Recent hurricane related power outages and water safety issues bring the importance of Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) during emergencies to the forefront.  

“Breastfeeding provides food security for infants and young children specifically in emergency situations,” as noted in IBFAN and BPNI’s Formula for Disaster. “Economic hardship, conflicts and calamities cause disruption, deprivation and severe stress for families, especially for mothers and their children. During such emergency situations, optimal breastfeeding is a lifeline to ensure survival, food and affection for infants and young children, in addition to providing anti-infective agents to protect against disease.”

Threats exasperated by the climate crisis have become the frequent reality for so many families and yet, our nation is abysmally prepared, especially for those with young children.

Participants of the WBTi Assessment Workshop, April 2016

The World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi)–an international tracking, assessment and monitoring system for national implementation of the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF)– scored the United States zero out of 10 for Infant feeding during Emergencies.  

WBTi uses the following criteria for assessment: 

  • The country has a comprehensive policy on infant and young child feeding that includes infant feeding in emergencies and contains all basic elements included in the IFE Operational Guidance
  • Person (s) tasked to coordinate and implement the above policy/strategy/guidance have been appointed at the national and sub national levels
    1. The health and nutrition emergency preparedness and response plan based on the global recommendation includes:  Basic and technical interventions to create an enabling environment for breastfeeding, including counselling by appropriately skill trained counsellors, and support for relactation and wet-nursing
    2. Measures to protect, promote and support appropriate and complementary feeding practices
    3. Measures to protect and support the non-breast-fed infants 
    4. Space for IYCF counselling support services
    5. Measures to minimize the risks of artificial feeding, including an endorsed Joint statement on avoidance of donations of breastmilk substitutes, bottles and teats, and standard procedures for handling unsolicited donations, and minimize the risk of formula feeding, procurement management and use of any infant formula and BMS, in accordance with the global recommendations on emergencies
    6. Indicators, and recording and reporting tools exist to closely monitor and evaluate the emergency response in the context of feeding of infants and young children.
  • Adequate financial and human resources have been allocated for implementation of the emergency preparedness and response plan on IYCF
  • Appropriate orientation and training material on infant and young child feeding in emergencies has been integrated into pre-service and inservice training for emergency management and relevant health care personnel
  • Orientation and training is taking place as per the national plan on emergency preparedness and response is aligned with the global recommendations ( at the national and sub-national levels)
Photo by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

The United States does not meet any of these criteria. 

“Ironically, some [U.S.] states and territories have well-elaborated plans for the care and feeding of household pets in shelters, but none for infants and young children,” Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner-Maffei points out. 

Research by Cindy H. Hwang, et al found that in all of the emergency situations they studied in middle and high income countries, The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was violated.  

The authors report: “Donated and distributed infant formula was often labeled … without adequate preparation guidance. Infant formula was repeatedly distributed as part of the standardized assistance package regardless of mothers’ infant feeding practices. The uncontrolled distribution of donated infant formula not only undermined good breastfeeding practices and efforts of mothers, but also increased the health risk to infants. Mothers often had no access to electricity, gas, safe water, and necessary infant feeding supplies to hygienically prepare infant formula.” 

Breastmilk substitute (BMS) companies are known to exploit emergency situations exacerbating child mortality, morbidity, and malnutrition. Authors of Old Tricks, New Opportunities: How Companies Violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and Undermine Maternal and Child Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic detail this behavior in the context of the current pandemic.  

Different from the U.S.’s preparedness deficit, WBTi congratulates Bangladesh on achieving “green” status, ranking them number one for supporting healthy infant feeding globally.

Photo by Theodore Goutas on Unsplash

Bangladesh scored 10 out of 10 on Infant Feeding during Emergencies. Find the country’s full report here. Other countries that have achieved high scores in IYCF During Emergencies include the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bolivia, and Nepal.  

During National Preparedness Month, individuals, families and communities are urged to take a week-by-week stepwise approach to prepare for disasters: Make A Plan, Build A Kit, Low-Cost, No-Cost Preparedness, Teach Youth About Preparedness.   Authors Karleen D. Gribble and Nina J. Berry offer detailed information on what emergency preparedness entails for breastfed and formula fed infants in Emergency preparedness for those who care for infants in developed country contexts.  Individuals can take action with USBC’s online tool in order to influence policymakers to integrate IYCF into future emergency preparedness and response efforts. 

Find general information about breastfeeding during emergencies and more action tools on USBC’s Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies page

Plastic-free parenting

There’s a fascinating snippet of history about the worldview of plastic in the 1960s told in Recycling! Is it BS? by How to Save a Planet

The hosts share editor of Modern Plastics, Inc. Lloyd Stouffer’s famous statement that “The future of plastics is in the trash can”, a deliberate declaration by the industry to influence modern wastefulness at the 1963 National Plastics Conference

Today’s parents are among those most affected by this push. Ethical, sustainable consumption at the individual level can be daunting especially because consumerism is such a powerful beast, to paraphrase Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Karin Cadwell. It’s the power of what happens to us when we’re walking down the supermarket aisles. 

“If it’s there, I must need it,” goes our inner dialogue.  It’s the psychology that infant formula and processed food companies prey on. 

It’s why so many of us fill our carts with single-use pouches full of super-glop (term coined by Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner-Maffei) that we toss to our littles ones while we’re on the go. The Packet Apocalypse, where stocked shelves offer an overwhelming array of mostly highly processed snacks and meals in plastic, has largely replaced the art of dining and sharing meals, just as plastics have largely replaced reusable, more sustainable products. 

Parenting plastic-free can seem unattainable, but there are simple adjustments we can make as we strive toward sustainability and address the climate-crisis we find ourselves in. 


Practical plastic-free suggestions 

Of course, breastfeeding is the ultimate example of waste-free food

This piece details the environmental impact of powdered baby formula milks sold in North America. It’s not intended to shame formula feeding families, rather hold companies and governments accountable.  

For families who feed their babies differently than exclusively at the breast/chest and require other materials and tools, Healthy Children Project faculty and guest blogger Donna Walls advises using  bottles made of glass, stainless steel or bamboo with silicone nipples. Avoid latex which can leach nitrosamines, she says. 

When pumping is part of infant feeding, Walls calls on us to investigate and invest in breast pumps from companies  that reduce the amount of plastics in the pump. 

“Avoid pumps that are made from PVC plastic, phthalates (labeled as DEHP or DBP), BPA or BPS or formaldehyde),” she explains. 

Business owner and Milwaukee mom to three-year-old Avery Jenna Meier, who appeared on a webinar on plastic-free parenting with Plastic-Free MKE over the summer,  recommends searching for second-hand items that can be sterilized like bottles.

Jenna and Avery pose at The Glass Pantry.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Meier

Beyond human milk feeding, Walls suggests using glass or ceramic jars which can be reused after purchasing salsa, sauces or condiments in lieu of plastic.

Walls also suggests swapping plastic wraps for beeswax covered fabric as container coverings. 

“At the grocery store, bring your own containers for bulk food purchases and bring your own non-plastic bags for produce or deli items,” she offers.  “Invest in plant- based ziploc storage bags, often referred to as bio-plastic or ‘plantic’, and made from beets, corn or other plants.” 


Melding convenience and sustainability 

Meier says that baby-led weaning was amazing for reducing unnecessary waste.

“…You aren’t buying baby food and for the most part, your child is eating the same meal as you so it just cuts down on separate packaging and waste,” she begins.  “…As my child grows and we are on the go a lot more and packing daycare lunches, the single use packets become a lot more tempting. And they’re ubiquitous, like even if I don’t buy little packets of something, he comes home with birthday favors or holiday treats or all sorts of things I wouldn’t typically buy.”

Meier recognizes the grey areas in convenient choices. 

“It’s not all good or all bad,” she says. When buying packaged food, Meier opts for organic options, B corp companies, and local options. 

“I also shop at my local co-op instead of the big chain stores, so overall my money is going to a better business,” she continues. “We buy locally made frozen pizzas and I feel that it’s a way to have the benefit of a quick meal on a hectic night while still supporting my local economy.” 

There’s a way to simplify efforts toward sustainability.  

“Even if you find yourself opting for convenience 99 percent of the time, at least there is that 1 percent that you are sticking to,” she explains.

It’s veggie broth for the Meier family; they never buy it packaged.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Meier

“And it’s a great one for teaching little ones because they can help with every part,” she explains. “We save veggie scraps in a bag in the freezer and then we have enough we make the broth, doing each part of the process together. So that is one ritual that has made it into our lives without feeling like I have to force myself to do it because we truly enjoy it.” 

Walls echoes the sentiment of simplicity coupled with convenience and addressing the climate-crisis.

“Making  better, more environmentally conscious choices is really about making small changes in our everyday habits,” Walls says. “For example, making sure you always keep reusable bags in your car or keeping a supply of cloth produce bags in your purse or diaper bag. Once you have made the initial investment in earth-aware supplies, it is really just a matter of making new habits.” 


Sustainability and health 

Meier goes on to suggest that sustainable living is about becoming present, intentional, and conscious of all of our daily habits and choices. 

“Including our food choices, which is such a big one because we eat all day, every day!” she exclaims. “Processed convenience foods do the opposite of connecting us to our food. They make it so we can eat mindlessly and not think about the input or the output. We don’t make the food ourselves so we don’t look at the ingredients. We don’t have to deal with the trash ourselves so we don’t mind throwing the packaging ‘away.’”

This satisfies the goal of consumerism, Meier continues. 

“Of course our health suffers. Not only are we eating crappy food that makes us sick, but we give up our agency and are disempowered in our own lives. All of this has effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health. Becoming intentional in our day brings agency back into our lives. Choose with care and notice how different food tastes when you choose it intentionally for reasons that align with your values. If supporting organic growers or local farmers is important to you, buying from those businesses will bring joy and fulfillment into your life. If you are inspired by living low waste, shop in the bulk section. You will be giddy as you unpack your groceries. It really is that simple. Living in line with our ethics brings harmony into our lives and in turn, benefits health in all areas.” 


Individual and systemic action 

As we address the climate crisis, there’s an argument pertaining to individual efforts versus policy impact that goes something like this:  Individual efforts make a miniscule difference unless individuals are sharing their eco-friendly practices.

Meier lives by example. 

“When you adopt the mindset of becoming an example of how you want the world to be, you find it easier to live in line with your values,” she comments. “You are now an ambassador of the lifestyle you want more people to live. And when you see the ripple effects of your actions, you recognize your responsibility and role and how important it is. When I stopped confronting people and started focusing more on myself, I saw much greater effects. People started coming to me asking questions more, or giving me new ideas. I found community in places I never thought I would. And I stopped thinking I had all the answers and was able to learn and grow so much more with that different attitude. I love the idea of calling people in instead of calling them out.” 

Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Healthy Baby Guide and Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Healthy Pregnancy Guide offer Take Action Tools which amplify individual voices while targeting systemic change at a policy level. 

For instance, the action tool populates emails to representatives urging support of the  Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 which aims to tackle the exploding crisis of plastic pollution and transform waste and recycling management in the United States. 

There’s a petition that puts pressure on corporate plastic polluters exploiting the pandemic too.  

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Meier says she would love to see single use plastics banned.

“This would make it easier to avoid and they are just so prevalent and irresponsible,” she says. “We know better as a society; I’m sure it’s something most would agree on.” 

The Plastic-Free MKE Coalition is a collaborative of organizations, including Meier’s business, doing their part to reduce single-use plastics. 

Walls is responsible for creating the Green Team at Miami Valley Hospital which became a model for shifting individual responsibility to systemic responsibility. 

Since then, Walls says she has been heartened by the strides we are making in creating “greener” families.

Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

“I see marketing aimed at young families focusing on eco-friendly products and more educational information available on the health benefits to children and all family members,” she says. 

Walls has written extensively about green-living. You can find some of her work here and here

On September 9, ANU Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions; ANU Gender Institute; BPNI/IBFAN South Asia; Australian Breastfeeding Association; WBTI Australia; Alive & Thrive Southeast Asia will present Breastfeeding: where healthy and sustainable food systems begin. Register for the free event here.

Young, determined and capable: celebrating youth advocates within maternal child health

Photo by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash

Of parents’ many responsibilities is helping our children navigate what’s “right” and “wrong”. 

“Rocks are not for eating,” we guide a curious toddler. 

“We don’t hit people,” we guide a frustrated sibling. “You can punch a pillow instead.” 

“Please put your helmet on,” we guide the active kindergartener on her bike. 

Sometimes this guidance is less about safety though and more about “rights” and “wrongs” in a moral sense. 

These lessons on morality are rarely black and white, they vary from family to family, culture to culture. I’ve often found that children do a better job teasing out and teaching moral lessons than the reverse. Children possess a moral clarity that often muddies somewhere along the path to adulthood. 

Not long ago, I was working on a piece about the PUMP Act for Our Milky Way. My kids and their friends played a version of tag while I typed on my laptop. One of the soon-to-be fifth graders approached me, curious about what I was working on. 

I described  to him the need for workplace protections and lactation accommodations and then held my breath waiting for his reaction. Had I done an adequate job summarizing this fairly complex issue? 

“They should definitely pass that legislation,” he replied matter-of-factly. “It’s only fair.” 

I was so pleased. A young male in favor of maternal child health protections. I offered him a fist bump and then he trotted back to his game of tag. 

Thinking more about that interaction, perhaps the most striking component was that he came to the conclusion of fairness so quickly;  no further questioning, no negotiating (as there often is with pre-teens).  

For a moment, like a movie montage reeling, I imagined our world with children in charge, making important decisions that shape policy. 

Fading back to reality, I remembered that young people do indeed mobilize and influence the world around us. 

“At certain points in history, when institutions and established leaders have failed to step up and take action, it falls to the youngest among us to take charge,” authors ​​David Gergen and James Piltch start off their piece Young people offer urgent moral clarity to do-nothing adults. 

Gergen and Piltch remind us most recently of Parkland students Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg and activist Greta Thunberg.

“What stands out about both of these young groups of leaders… is the sense of urgency and purpose they bring to public life,” the duo writes. 

In an exchange between Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson in Goodall’s Hopecast, they too discuss the importance of youth activism.

Photo by Thiago Cerqueira on Unsplash

Dr. Johnson calls it a critical importance. 

“The moral clarity that children bring.. is just invaluable,” she says in Hope Is Courage And Taking Action Together. 

As we get older, she goes on, we get used to compromising and negotiating through the existing systems.  

“Kids are like, ‘there’s a right and a wrong.’ That of course is so powerful and really drives grown ups to get their act together…” she says in the episode. 

Dr. Goodall goes on to point out that children have to learn though that the world isn’t black and white, and that compromise can play a key role in influencing change. 

Advocates for Youth– a nearly 40 year-old organization that works to promote effective adolescent reproductive and sexual health programs and policies in the United States and the global south– has put together a Building Effective Youth-Adult Partnerships Fact Sheet  which provides guidance on how adults can tap into youth’s energy, passion, and commitment and how youth can become involved in policy change. Advocates for Youth also designed the Young Parents’ Advocacy Toolkit for individuals inspired to drive community change. 

Interestingly, the field of lactation has been criticized for being largely advanced in age, and rightly so. The United States Lactation Consultant Association’s (USLCA) 2019 demographic report shows that over half of IBCLCs are 51-70 years old. The Academy of Lactation Policy and Practice (ALPP) 2019 demographic report shows that just under 40 percent of CLCs are between the ages of 25-34 and 35.5 percent are 35-50. 

So where are the young maternal child health advocates? 

Southern Birth Justice leads The Young Mamas Leadership Institute, a 5-day immersive training for young black and indigenous mothers who have an interest in social and birth justice. During the training, participants are exposed to concepts of activism, community organizing, radical self care and learn about career opportunities as birth workers, as explained on their Facebook page. (Find more info here.) 

A partnership between the Institute of International Education and Harvard School of Public Health created the Maternal Health Young Champions Program. Ten  young people passionate about improving maternal health were selected for a nine-month research or field project internship in their home country. You can find the list of the champions along with a description of their project and impact here

A group of young Latina mothers from the Southwest side of Chicago trained as Breastfeeding Peer Counselors by HealthConnect One, have been assisting young mothers with breastfeeding through the Opciones Saludables program of Heartland Alliance. This group has presented at the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) Youth Summit for Pregnant and Parenting Young People. ICAH is another organization working in partnership with young people, advocating policies and practices that promote a positive approach to adolescent sexual health and parenting.

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash

It isn’t unheard of for young activists to be criticized as zealots or short-sighted. Gergen and Piltch discuss this in their piece. But it’s their future they’re fighting for.  Their determination should be celebrated, not shunned. Young people have the power to spur action and they tend to do so with a sense of urgency, which is precisely what we need within maternal child health and more broadly, what we need in this world. 

We have only highlighted a few youth organizations in this piece. Help us uplift others’ work by sharing in the comments below, or by emailing us at