Identify and network with an individual or organization with a mission that intersects with maternal child health. This shouldn’t be a challenge… “All roads lead to breastfeeding!” (A popular adage at Healthy Children Project.) Often, we find ourselves preaching to the choir, shouting in an echo chamber, whatever you want to call it. It’s time to reach beyond our normal audience.
Follow Dr. Magdelena Whoolery on social media to stay up to date on strategies that combat the multi-billion dollar artificial baby milk industry.
In an eerie parallel, WHO’s February 2022 report, How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding, states that “Recommendations from health professionals are a key channel of formula milk marketing. Health professionals spoke of receiving commissions from sales, funding for research, promotional gifts, samples of infant and specialized formula milk products, or invitations to seminars, conferences and events.” (p. 7)
Last week, Nikki Lee, RN, BSN, MS, Mother of 2, IBCLC,RLC, CCE, CIMI, CST (cert.appl.), ANLC, RYT500 and I shared our reflection on the forces that shape physicians’ personal infant feeding experiences. In this second installment, we explore how physicians as professionals can support breastfeeding despite being targeted by the breastmilk substitute (BMS) industry and despite generally being woefully equipped with proper lactation education, training and counseling skills. These predicaments can lead physicians to “explicitly or inadvertently, introduce doubts around the ability of women to breastfeed and the value and quality of their breast milk.” (WHO, p. 12)
Pervasive industry influence for generations
Because “health professionals are among the most respected and trusted members of society…[their] advice…is highly influential for pregnant women and parents of infants and young children, including around infant feeding decisions.” Formula milk companies exploit this relationship of trust. (WHO, p. 12)
BMS representatives target physicians “with a range of incentives, including funding for research, commissions from sales, ambassadorial roles, merchandise, gifts and all expenses paid promotional trips.” (WHO, p.13)
The psychology behind gift-giving, both big and small is that “ it imposes…a sense of indebtedness…. The…rule of reciprocity imposes…an obligation to repay for favors, gifts and invitations…” (Katz 2003) Instead of supporting infant feeding purely through a health and wellness lens, physicians feel obliged to a company muddying their relationships with their patients.
Interestingly, most physicians feel immune to marketing’s influence, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Frederick S. Sierles, MD lays out in The Gift-Giving Influence.
Our culture fails to acknowledge the mother baby unit as a dyad, and this influences the way physicians can support breastfeeding too.
“We are never taught, in our fragmented system, that the mother and baby are a unit,” Lee reiterates. “OB/GYN/midwife sees mama; peds sees babies. There are even different places for them in the hospital: nursery, postpartum unit. What a struggle we had with the BFHI to keep mother and baby together.”
The Alliance for Innovation on Maternal Health’s (AIM) Patient Safety Bundles offer models for how health professionals can use task force approaches that break down silos of care and open channels of communication. The strategies used in these bundles aim to ultimately shift from fractured care to continuity of care where the dyad is protected.
We must also consider how physicians are compensated for their work. In the current U.S. healthcare system, physicians find themselves paid in Relative Value Units (RVUs), which bluntly put, is a pretty mechanical way to value providing care to other humans, as we mentioned in our first installment. In short, the more RVUs a physician racks up, the more they’re paid. Breastfeeding counseling takes time.
How are physicians to spend time with their patients, educating and supporting breastfeeding when they’ve had little to no breastfeeding education invested in them? Dr. Nigel Campbell Rollinspointed out in WHO’s How the marketing of formula milk influences our decisions on infant feeding webinar that faculty in medical schools themselves sometimes believe that formula products are inevitable or necessary.
Often, it is a physician’s own struggle to breastfeed that seems to spur advocacy and change. Our Milky Way’s repository includes a breadth of physicians’ stories of personal struggles that have inspired them to become breastfeeding champions for their patients and communities.
“There was no training about [breastfeeding] technique, no discussion about common problems before discharge, no training about clinical problems as far as in the first few months postpartum…when to introduce complementary food,” she continues.
We are honored to have been able to feature the work of the late Audrey Naylor in Commendable contributions to the field of lactation. With a lifetime interest in illness prevention, Naylor said she was quickly convinced of the power of breastfeeding after only attending a few hours of a breastfeeding seminar in 1976.
“Neither medical school nor pediatric residency taught me anything about breastfeeding,” Naylor said.
“It is easy to become frustrated with nurses and physicians who – often inadvertently sabotage breastfeeding mothers and babies, but I also sympathize,” she explains. “We are in a position where we are supposed to have answers, but no one has taught us the skills necessary to provide those answers.”
Other stories and models for care
Lori Feldman-Winter’s, et al Residency curriculum improves breastfeeding care showed that “a targeted breastfeeding curriculum for residents in pediatrics, family medicine, and obstetrics and gynecology improves knowledge, practice patterns, and confidence in breastfeeding management in residents and increases exclusive breastfeeding in their patients. Implementation of this curriculum may similarly benefit other institutions.
As part of their work to build a cohort of breastfeeding-friendly pediatricians, the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Georgia Breastfeeding Coalition launched a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician Interest Form.” Georgia pediatricians who are interested in becoming certified as a “Breastfeeding-Friendly Pediatrician” are invited to fill out the form.
A medical student once told Nikki Lee, RN, BSN, MS, Mother of 2, IBCLC,RLC, CCE, CIMI, CST (cert.appl.), ANLC, RYT500 about an obstetrician who loved to pump while she was catching babies because she collected more milk than usual. Lee theorizes that perhaps it was due to the high levels of oxytocin in the atmosphere during childbirth.
It’s a fascinating concept, and quite unusual considering physicians often find themselves in a terrible paradox. As Lee puts it, they are supposed to take care of everybody else, and no one takes care of them. They’re expected to be experts on everything; as childbirth educators and lactation care providers, we often disclaim “this information is not meant as a substitute for medical advice.”
With insufficient support in their personal infant feeding goals, physicians’ struggles sometimes seem to spur advocacy and a “do-better-for-my patients” attitude. Just the same, these experiences can lead individuals to harbor resentment, despair, resignation and defeat, and might unintentionally influence the breastfeeding support they are able to offer their patients.
When physicians’ basic needs aren’t met, we can’t expect them to meet the needs of their patients. How can one pour from an empty cup? Kathleen Kendall Tackett offers Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Self Care for Members of the Perinatal Team which presents insights on the effects of little institutional support and specific strategies for integrating self-care into care for others.
Self-care is sustainable only when everyone can do it.
Before physicians are done with their decade or more of training, they are challenged by inadequate support in their efforts to feed their own children.
What’s more, a recent research letter, American Board of Medical Specialties Board Examination Lactation Accommodation, evaluates the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) member boards’ lactation-specific board examination accommodation policies highlighting that a minority of female physicians (42%) achieve the recommendation that infants receive mother’s milk at least until age one.
“Board examinations are a key aspect of medical training,” the authors begin. “With up to 22% of female trainees delivering a child during postgraduate training, and nearly 59, 000 female physicians in residency and fellowship in the US, there is a large group potentially affected by board examination lactation accommodations.”
About a decade ago, in a landmark case that has implications for all testing organizations in Massachusetts, a unanimous Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that breastfeeding mothers are entitled to special accommodations to allow them sufficient time to pump milk during lengthy testing for medical licensure. [https://www.wbur.org/news/2012/04/13/breastfeeding-doctor-ruling ]
The elephant in the room is the issue of parental leave. Honestly, it’s hard to stomach that we are still arguing that there are medical and psychosocial benefits of protected parental leave for both parents and children. The U.S. is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member country—and one of only six countries in the world—without a national paid parental leave policy. The U.S. is also one of the few high-income countries without a national family caregiving or medical leave policy. [https://bipartisanpolicy.org/explainer/paid-family-leave-across-oecd-countries/ ]
Women don’t breastfeed; societies do. The societal burden on the mother is magnified when the mother is a physician and is compelled to take care of everyone else, with no support for their own breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is blamed for being difficult, instead of us all getting furious that we don’t have paid maternity leave.
In the current U.S. healthcare system, physicians find themselves paid in Relative Value Units (RVUs), which bluntly put, is a pretty mechanical way to value providing care to other humans. In short, the more RVUs a physician racks up, the more they’re paid. Often that leaves lactating physicians forgoing pumping to spend more time with patients. The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing Mothers Act would close the loopholes that force physicians to choose income or feeding their babies. The PUMP Act advanced out of the Senate HELP Committee with unanimous bipartisan support in May 2021 and then passed with significant bipartisan support (267-149) in the House last October. Despite this strong bipartisan support, the bill has languished in the Senate for almost a year. Get updates on progress here.
The policy reports that the Institutional Requirements of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education require training programs to provide written policies regarding leaves of absence, including parental leave, and these policies must comply with current legislation such as the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but that the length of leave has considerable variability among residency programs. The statement outlines the challenges of parental leave policies in training programs and gives recommendations to protect trainees and their families. One challenge is that education calendars are set long before a person enters a medical program, but labor, delivery, and the establishment of breastfeeding don’t fit into a predetermined calendar.
Despite this dismal landscape, the medical world is changing and there are stories and models to celebrate.
Catherine Wagner, a cardiothoracic surgery resident at Michigan Medicine, managed to breastfeed and pump for a year during her residency with a network of support.
Got Milk? Design and Implementation of a Lactation Support Program for Surgeons describes an initiative where “Multiple faculty members offered to offload resident workload before starting cases to provide time for a lactating resident to express milk… The University of Wisconsin adopted a ‘cross-cover’ model encouraging lactating residents to have other residents assist in the operating room during non-critical portions of the case if the primary operating resident needed to express milk that has been very well received and easily implemented.”
There’s attention being paid to lactation accommodation information in urology residency programs too.
In this study, “Of 145 urology residency programs, 72.4% included information about lactation accommodations anywhere on the institution’s website.” The authors conclude that “efforts to recruit and retain female urologists should include making [lactation accommodation] information more easily accessible.”
Authors Annery G Garcia-Marcinkiewicz andSarah S Titler call on anesthesiology as a workforce and specialty, to support the unique need of lactating and breastfeeding anesthesiologists in Lactation and Anesthesiology.
This study offers the first comprehensive scoping review of the literature on breastfeeding policies pertaining to surgical residents in Canada.
The authors write: “…We aim to use these data to advocate for breast feeding for surgical resident physicians through the creation and improvement of current breastfeeding policies as applicable. This work aims to help change surgical culture to be more inclusive, which is vital in creating a breast feeding-friendly environment. This would include leadership endorsement of the policy, a culture shift (for example, no repercussions to resident for coming back on a modified schedule or taking breaks for expressing milk), visible educational notices throughout the workplace (ie, ‘breast feeding-friendly workplace’ notices, common in Canadian public settings), and creation of a network of ‘new moms’ within the surgical resident programme to ensure there is support and mentorship for new moms returning back to work. ”
While we wait for policies to catch up to the needs of lactating physicians, wearable pumps are helping them reach their infant feeding goals. The Impact of Wearable Breast Pumps on Physicians’ Breastfeeding Experience and Success found that “those who had used a wearable pump reported statistically significant shorter lactation breaks (p < 0.00001) and were more likely to be able to provide breast milk to their infants for their entire intended duration (p = 0.005) compared to the traditional pump group.”
The support network Dr. MILK (Mothers Interested in Lactation Knowledge) has been successful at helping physicians mothers reach their infant feeding goals.
Where else are you seeing physician parents being supported in their infant feeding journeys? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Even in the harshest of trade regimes, there is space for public interest laws to meet legitimate health objectives when they are founded on internationally adopted standards and recommendations such as the Code and subsequent relevant WHA resolutions.”– WHO, 2016
All three of my kids sport a similar look when they lie. As soon as the fabrication tumbles out, their cheeks suck in ever so slightly toward pursed lips. Once they’ve heard themselves, their eyes widen a smidge and their bottom jaw drops just a few degrees.
Most of us don’t like to be lied to, but usually the dishonesty we encounter can be considered trivial. “I didn’t do it!” when there’s crayon art on the kitchen walls. “Your hair looks great!” when you know it doesn’t. “Of course I remember you!” when you haven’t the slightest clue.
Just as humans tend to react physiologically when we lie, we have an ability to detect when someone is lying to us. Inundated by the lies told by marketing companies on behalf of major industries though, detecting truth and falsehoods can be majorly challenging. There’s no lip biting, no shifting eyes, no perspiring to give it away. Instead the tactics industries use are cunning, targeted, sometimes irresistible and truly brilliant in many ways. The lies they tell are perpetual, and their claims have completely saturated our culture, influencing just about every facet of our lives, all for commercial gain.
There’s a promotional video featured by a cooking show that showcases a chef professing his allegiance to gas stoves. The video was created by a utilities provider though, and having worked aggressively with state legislatures “to block legislation that would provide cleaner, electric-based building codes,” their marketing got us to believe that cooking on a gas stove is somehow the best while simultaneously waging “war on local electrification initiatives all over the country.” [https://www.thresholdpodcast.org/season-4-episode-6-transcript]
Here’s another example. Most of the seafood that we purchase and consume in the U.S. is mislabeled as something completely different. This “Seafood Fraud” is detailed in (Mis)labeled Fish.
Fossil fuel companies are greenwashing their efforts, helping to sow doubt about the fossil fuel industry’s role in the climate crisis.
As explained on How to Save a Planet: “They’ve… done it indirectly, by funding organizations who lobby congress, launching fake grassroots campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, through advertising. These ads, according to Martin Watters at the nonprofit firm ClientEarth, are greenwashing.”
Now consider the baby milk substitute (BMS) industry. A recent WHO report examines the scope, techniques and impact of digital marketing strategies for the promotion of breast-milk substitutes which reveals how the $ 55 billion baby formula industry “insidiously and persistently” targets parents online through “tools like apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and competitions and advice forums or services, formula milk companies can buy or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers.” [https://www.who.int/news/item/28-04-2022-who-reveals-shocking-extent-of-exploitative-formula-milk-marketing]
Their efforts have further adapted to target older children with their toddler milks and formulas. Lurie again calls out false claims like “Brain & eye development” and “Plant-based protein for toddlers.”
He writes: “The multibillion-dollar infant-formula industry is trying to convince parents that children older than 12 months need formula. They don’t. The beverages—made largely of fortified powdered soy or dairy milk, oil, and corn syrup solids or maltodextrin—typically supply added sugars. They certainly don’t beat a diet of healthy foods.”
The WHO report confirms these concerns: “Science is a dominant theme in the marketing of formula milk across all eight countries, including scientific imagery, language and pseudo-scientific claims. Formula milks are positioned as close to, equivalent and sometimes superior to breast milk, presenting incomplete scientific evidence and inferring unsupported health outcomes. Ingredients, such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are advertised as ‘informed’ or ‘derived’ from breast milk and linked to child developmental outcomes. Examination of the scientific evidence cited does not support the validity of these claims.” (p. 9)
The marketing of formula products is different from other commodities because it impacts the survival, health and development of children and mothers; disrupts truthful information– an essential human right as noted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child; disregards the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes; and exploits the aspirations, vulnerabilities and fears at the birth and early years of our children solely for commercial gain. (WHO/UNICEF, 2022, p. x)
Considering the current state of affairs– the industry’s guileful tactics, the permeation of their influence in every sphere of life, our nation’s lack of adoption of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes/ subsequent WHA resolutions and any monitoring or enforcement systems– it’s easy to feel crushed as a maternal child health advocate, like the way forward is straight into the Apocalypse.
Fear not. Researcher Britt Wray has suggestions on how to keep ourselves within our windows of tolerance in order to continue to mobilize. While Wray’s work focuses on the climate crisis, her findings are easily applied to maternal child health advocacy. Learn about these techniques here.
There are also simple actions (and some bigger ones too) that we can employ to continue to move the needle.
Françoise Coudray of ADJ+ Allaitement Des Jumeaux et Plus offered this to health advocates attending the launch of WHO’s latest report : “The mosquito: small, small, but have one in your bedroom and you will have a very bad night; so do the mosquito, let us all do the mosquito.”
When marketed formula products on social media platforms, report them directly to the platform.
Make a presence at the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods Public Meetings. In April, individuals like Consumer Reports Senior Staff Scientist Mike Hansen, Ph.D, Environmental Defense Fund’s chemicals policy director Tom Neltner and Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Thomas Galligan, PhD made clear in brief comments that we need to rethink how toxin levels are approached at CCCF. Hansen pointed out that the current permitted levels are not sufficient to protect infants and young children. Echo these demands for safer products. [While we wait for more stringent requirements, consumers can check out the Clean Label Project to find information about food and products not available on their labels.]
Join forces with other advocacy groups to put pressure on the enforcement agencies responsible for food safety.
Get people fired up. Increase public interest participation using NACCHO’s flyer on advocacy and lobbying to drum up attention about how the Code benefits all babies, no matter their feeding method. This has been grossly overlooked and cannot be overstated as formula companies often attempt to pit breastfeeding advocates against those who do not breastfeed.
Encourage divestment. Check out Norwegian Secretary-General of Save the Children Tove Wang’s push for the Norwegian Government Petroleum Fund’s withdrawal from investments in companies aggressively pushing infant formula in developing countries. According to Save the Children’s Don’t Push It, “The largest global fund management firms have more than $110 billion invested in companies that market milk formula. As we have documented in this report, the profits these companies generate are fuelled in part by marketing practices that directly – and profoundly – harm children….Active investment funds have the power to wield huge influence over the boards of the companies they have a stake in.” (p44-45)
Originally from New Orleans, Erin Bannister, lab instructor and dietetic intern at Northern Illinois University, says that food is tied to her identity. Bannister was ten when she first learned to make a roux. Those early skills prepared her for her later work as a chef, which she describes as a kind of manual labor with long, hot hours.
Bannister shares with a laugh, that she started to wonder how she could work with food and continue to nourish people with weekends and holidays off. Eventually, she discovered the field of dietetics.
Currently in the thick of her Master’s thesis, Bannister is exploring the metabolic energy needs in adults and determining whether the default equations we use are accurate in the populations they’re used in.
For instance, it is widely accepted that an average allowance for a roughly 170 pound man is 2,300 kcal/day; for women, it is 1,900 kcal/day. We expect that pregnant and lactating people will have higher metabolic energy needs.
As Bannister spends a swath of her days compiling and extracting data, she says she’s discovering that some of the accepted equations need to be delineated.
“The real root of my thesis and the root of most of my studies and the goals that I have, is to use accurate evidence-based interventions in the populations that they are meant to be used in and to not remove ourselves from that evidence,” Bannister begins. “… Often times, things are taught and then they are believed because the person that taught it is an expert and the evidence gets lost on the way; don’t forget to review the evidence.”
As Bannister continues to pursue this idea that we can do better than sludging through the status quo, she sought out the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). Although Bannister has great interest in the complexities of nutrition and health from cradle to grave, she says that there is a solid argument that the health of a population is highly correlated with the health of its mothers.
“[I want] to be as helpful and effective as possible… to have the knowledge to be able to contribute meaningfully, and the certification adds credibility,” she explains. “The training was quite eye-opening, almost embarrassing to say how little I knew about breastfeeding.”
Bannister goes on that ultimately, she would like to work with nutrition intervention in low and middle income countries where the burden of improper nutrition is most severe. Currently, many countries worldwide face the double burden of malnutrition – characterized by the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight, obesity or diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). In fact, nearly one in three people globally suffers from at least one form of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, overweight or obesity and diet-related NCDs. (WHO 2017)
As Bannister buckles down at the end of the semester, she says, “I want to make sure I am utilizing all the forks I’ve got in the fire.”