“As you focus on clearing your generational trauma, do not forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than just wounds.” — Xavier Dagba
Audrey Gentry-Brown, Full Spectrum Birth Sista, Certified Blactation Educator (CBE), Student Midwife, and Medicine Woman in Loudoun County, Va. often found herself asking why?
While present at her sisters’ childbirth experiences, she couldn’t help but question the medical interventions imposed on their bodies. “Why aren’t these doctors allowing their bodies to do what they were designed to do?” she wondered.
Audrey, hailing from a family with maternal origins in the Southern United States and paternal roots in Jamaica, noticed a stark difference in breastfeeding customs. In the U.S., it appeared that nobody from her maternal lineage embraced breastfeeding, while in Jamaica, it was a widespread tradition.The puzzle deepened when she observed the aversion of many Black women to breastfeeding.
Just as she diligently tends to her garden, Audrey embarked on a quest for answers and is now sharing the abundance of knowledge she has cultivated.
In her own words, she is rewriting cultural norms within her community, introducing “Afrofuturist healing modalities” that reconnect to “ancestral magic.”
“I engage in this work to revive and reclaim the traditions that we have abandoned. I advocate for, educate, and guide our women through a system that often neglects our needs. My dream is for us to give birth as our foremothers did, within the comfort of our homes, surrounded by love,” Audrey passionately explains.
She says she sees a glimmer of hope in the growing trend of families choosing to reclaim their traditional birthing practices by opting for out-of-hospital births, which grants them greater control and the ability to curate their birth experience.
Audrey points out a concerning statistic: Black women are more likely to face in-hospital formula introduction (Echols, 2019), along with other marketing tactics targeting them.
“I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way,” she declares.
Moreover, she is dedicated to educating families about traditional practices like babywearing, which encourages breastfeeding and responsive parenting.
In her quest to preserve cultural traditions, Audrey invokes an African proverb: “When an elder dies, a library burns down.” She urges people to reach out to the matriarchs and patriarchs in their families, seeking knowledge of their ancestral customs, and ultimately, to revive, safeguard, and uphold those traditions.
Their work is supported by a grant through the Tri-County Health Department. Westover has been working alongside Susan Howk, a breastfeeding policy specialist, to create their policies and lactation spaces through a six-point plan which includes policy, staff and provider training, patient education, environment, evaluation and sustainability, and continuity of care.
The grant has funded things like a chair, end tables, a hospital-grade multi user breast pump and kits, a stuffed animal nursing dog with her puppies for siblings to play with, and a lactation scale for weighted feeds.
Their lactation space started in one of their smallest exam rooms, but has recently graduated to one of their larger exam rooms, which is now near the end of its renovation. Westover notes that the space also functions for newborn and young baby visits.
Westover reports that CRP owners since November 2021 Drs. Anderson and Bouchillon have been highly supportive of the breastfeeding-friendly changes.
Prior to the implementation of their lactation policies, Westover says their office “was not lactation friendly at all.” She describes stacks of formula in plain view.
“It gave the impression that we were promoting formula,” she comments.
Gift bags for patients were also riddled with formula-promotions, so the team phased out the branded materials and replaced them for non-branded, breastfeeding-friendly items.
Now, Westover and her colleague Sydney Gruenhaupt RN-BSN, CLC see breastfeeding dyads weekly for office visits; whereas they once had to refer out. Of mothers’ main concerns are poor weight gain and uncomfortable or painful latch.
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.
Inform people about the links between breastfeeding and the environment/climate change
Anchor breastfeeding as a climate-smart decision
Engage people and organizations for greater impact
Galvanize action on improving the health of the planet and people through breastfeeding
Can breastfeeding really affect climate change and create a cleaner, healthier environment?
Our planet’s health is closely tied to human health, and so there is a growing interest in learning how to protect the health of the environment.
Among the many things humans can do to protect the environment, breastfeeding is one of the most important. Breastfeeding is the best example of a clean, eco-friendly action to protect and improve the health of planet Earth.
Breastfeeding is the ultimate natural, sustainable resource. It requires no raw materials needed for processing and no energy consumption in production or transportation. It does not produce any material waste or by-products, does not require any packaging materials, water resources or electricity, and creates no pollution of the air or water. Lactation is a perfect partner for environmental health and the ultimate example of “eating local”.
Parents who express their milk and feed from bottles or other methods also provide a more planet-friendly feeding method than artificial feeding. Formula manufacturing requires energy, material and transportation.
The carbon footprint of breastfeeding gives us another glimpse into the environmental impact of breastfeeding. Wikipedia defines carbon footprint as “the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.” In simple terms, it’s a measurement that shows us something’s impact on the health of the environment.
The carbon footprint of breastfeeding is based on the production and transportation of food for the mother based on the RDA of an additional 500 kcal/day recommended during breastfeeding. According to research from the United Kingdom, the carbon footprint of breastfeeding is estimated at 5.9 (this varies between countries).
In comparison, the carbon footprint of formula feeding— which is based on the use of resources, animal and factory production emissions and transportation of the formula as well as supplies, preparation and storage of formula at home— is estimated at 11.0 (again varying between countries). On average, feeding breast milk substitutes had a higher impact on the climate than breastfeeding in all countries studied. This certainly demonstrates the positive impact on the environment when the infant feeding choice is breastfeeding.(Bodkin, 2019 Meade, 2008)
The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) supports optimal infant feeding practices and advocates for universal implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, an international health strategy recommending restrictions on the marketing of all formulas and supplies intended to discourage breastfeeding. In 2015 IBFAN developed their statement on breastfeeding and the environment:
“Breastfeeding protects our health and our planet – right from the start, breastfeeding is the first step towards protecting human health, short- and long-term. It is also the first step towards protecting the health of our environment and conserving our planet’s scarce natural resources. We need to start at the beginning, with infants and young children. Our babies and children are in no way responsible for climate change and environmental degradation, but instead they suffer the disastrous consequences.” (IBFAN, 2015)
It’s clear that breastfeeding is the most climate-friendly option for infant feeding, but does the environment have an impact on breastfeeding? The answer is yes.
For decades scientists around the world have studied the impact of environmental contaminants on the mammary gland, and on mothering behaviors. For instance, a study from the Journal of Health Science demonstrated that rats exposed to dietary bisphenol A (BPA) in early pregnancy showed cellular injury to the mammary glands as well as lower prolactin levels. (Miyaura, 2004).
What’s more, Rochester Medical Center studies reported in Science Daily demonstrated damage to rat mammary glands to the extent that some mother rats were unable to nourish their pups after exposure to dioxins. Researchers noted that some rats were able to recover mammary function by late pregnancy. (Lawrence, 2009).
In 2013, a study in the Journal of Neurotoxicology and Teratology showed a decrease in maternal behaviors in Wistar rats (less grooming, protection and nuzzling), a concerning finding but not yet demonstrated in humans. (Boudalia, 2013}.
Studies like these are the basis for ongoing research looking into possible negative impacts on human lactation. The studies are also the basis of much education related to how to create a safer environment while protecting lactation.
An unpublished study from Wright State University looked at mothers with self-described low milk supply and the relationship between environmental contaminants. The 78 mothers in the study were four weeks to eight months postpartum and were all given education on reducing exposures to environmental estrogens (personal care products, food hormones and plasticizers).
Results were seen in one to five weeks and ranged from the mothers stating her “breasts were fuller,” the “babies seemed more satisfied,” and fewer needed supplementation. Some found a doubling of supply (noted with pumping during work hours). Seven had no noticeable increase in milk supply, and of those only two weaned from breastfeeding. The rest continued supplementation. (Walls, presented 2009).
In a Mexican study of young Yaqui tribe women, those who moved from native land to new chemical based agriculture, had less alveolar tissue compared to the young women who remained with the tribe and practiced traditional, non-chemical farming techniques.
Many of the agri-chemical exposed young women were found to have larger than normal breasts, but less glandular tissue (referred to as “empty breast” syndrome) and many were unable to breastfeed their infants which is viewed as an integral part of mothering in their culture. (Hansen, 2010).
On the surface, these studies can seem discouraging until we really weigh the risks and benefits of breastfeeding in a polluted world.
First, human milk contains properties that have been shown to mitigate some negative, environmental effects. (Williams, Florence, NYT)
For instance, human milk contains bio-active components which specifically control and resolve inflammation, promote a thick, healthy gut lining to support an optimum functioning immune system and provide the most nutritious food for optimum general health for infants and children.
Emeritus Director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute Miriam Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC stated “The fact that studies of child [health] outcomes in highly polluted areas are still better for the breastfed infant . . . would seem to indicate that certain factors in the production of human milk and in the milk itself, immunological and other, may mediate the potential harm of the ambient pollution.”
She went on to say, “… No environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding. I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.”
Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood agrees: ”We haven’t yet compromised breast milk to such an extent that it’s a worse food than infant formula…..”
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has also published that certain components of human milk act to increase the infant’s elimination of some toxins and to protect the infant’s developing brain, central nervous system, and body as a whole.
WABA’s statement on breastfeeding and environmental contaminants echoes this sentiment and encourages breastfeeding as the safest feeding choice despite maternal exposure to contaminants.
Their statement reads: “Is the presence of these chemical residues in breastmilk a reason not to breastfeed? No. Exposure before and during pregnancy is a greater risk to the fetus. The existence of chemical residues in breastmilk is not a reason for limiting breastfeeding. In fact, it is a reason to breastfeed because breastmilk contains substances that help the child develop a stronger immune system and gives protection against environmental pollutants and pathogens. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by fetal exposure.” (WABA, 2005.)
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) review on contaminants and human milk states definitively, “The benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the toxicological disadvantages that are associated with certain POPs” (persistent organic pollutants).
To reiterate, considering the safety of human milk even when contaminants have been detected, neonatal intensive care researcher Fani Anatolitou (2012) states, “the detection of any environmental chemical in breast milk does not necessarily mean that there is a serious health risk for breastfed infants. No adverse effect has been clinically or epidemiologically demonstrated as being associated solely with consumption of human milk containing background levels of environmental chemicals”.
It is important to understand that many of the measurements of POPs in human milk are not clinically meaningful, hence are not a cause for alarm. Even more importantly, as mentioned earlier, a number of components of human milk act to counter potential risks of contaminant exposure (Anitolitou, 2012). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that effects of exposure have only been detected in a breastfeeding infant when the mother was extremely ill.
As lactation care providers we are in a unique position to not only support the optimum health of infants and children, but also be a part of creating a healthier environment for the children to grow and thrive.
American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). (2018). Breastfeeding, Family Physicians Supporting (Position Paper). Downloaded 17. Jan. 2018 from https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/breastfeeding-support.html
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Section on Breastfeeding. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk (Policy Statement). Pediatrics 129(3), e827-e841. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3552.
AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals Into Human Milk Committee on Drugs https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/3/776/T7
Anadón, A., Martínez-Larrañaga, M. R., Ares, I., Castellano, V., Martínez, M. A. (2017). Drugs and chemical contaminants in human breast milk. In R. C. Gupta (Ed.), Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology (2nd Ed., pp. 67-98). London, UK: Academic Press.
Anatolitou, F. (2012). Human milk benefits and breastfeeding. Journal of Pediatric and Neonatal Individualized Medicine 1(1), 11-18. DOI: 10.7363/010113.
Arnardottir,H. et al. Human milk proresolving mediators stimulate resolution of acute inflammation. Mucosal Immunology, October 2015 DOI: 10.1038/mi.2015.99
Bodkin, H. Breastfeed to save the planet, scientists say as study exposes infant formula damage to environment https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/10/02/breastfeed-save-planet-scientists-say-study-exposes-infant-formula/
Boudalia, S. et al. A multi-generational study on low-dose BPA exposure in Wistar rats: Effects on maternal behavior, flavor intake and development. Neurotoxicol Teratol 2013 Nov 20. pii: S08920362(13)00217-1. doi:10.1016/j.ntt.2013
Climate Change and Health June 2015 https://ibfan.org/docs/climate-change-2015-English.pdf
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In her role at the City of Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Lee noticed the challenges breastfeeding people face in shelters.
The barriers are a result of our cultural attitude toward lactating people and misunderstandings about their bodies and needs.
Lee talks about issues of privacy and ‘fairness’ in a shelter. Organizational dress codes often require residents to dress modestly, so when a person exposes their breasts to feed a baby, other residents can wonder why they’re not allowed to wear short shorts. Parents can express concern about the teenage boys in their families seeing breasts while a baby is being fed.
There’s the concern over safe milk storage and the mythology around reimbursement through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. Shelter staff may believe that if a mother breastfeeds, the facility will lose money to buy food because the allotted amount for infant formula isn’t getting used. Lee clarifies that if a mother breastfeeds, the institution will have more money to spend on food.
Just like in the rest of the US, there tends to be a push for formula feeding because the baby’s intake is easily measured, and staff are more comfortable with what is familiar, i.e. bottle-feeding
Lee continues, “There is a genuine honesty from people who don’t understand anything about breastfeeding, ‘Why are we breastfeeding?’ ‘Why are we bothering?’” Staff in hospitals have been educated about breastfeeding over the past few decades; staff in shelters have not.
So when she conducts trainings, she starts at the rudimentary level of ‘what are mammals?’
“All the worst mythology that you can imagine is in the shelter,” Lee says. “All the worst in how society treats mothers and babies gets magnified in shelters.”
With the problem identified, Lee says she started “from scratch in a way,” looking for a written policy to support breastfeeding people. Early on in her search, she followed up on a news story featuring a homeless mother in Hawaii. She posted inquiries on Lactnet, CDC listserv, international online forums, Facebook groups, and reached out to shelters at random wondering if they had breastfeeding policies .
“Nothing,” Lee reports. “There is probably a shelter somewhere that has a policy, but after two years of a global search, I wasn’t able to find it.”
In all her search, Lee found one published document— a Canadian study looking at the factors that influence breastfeeding practices of mothers living in a maternity shelter– that could be helpful.
She sent it out to colleagues at CHOP’s Homeless Health Initiative for feedback, and for quite a while, there was none. Lee’s colleague Melissa Berrios Johnson, MSW, a social work trainer with HHI, and the convenor of its breastfeeding workgroup subcommittee, helped to make the policy reality.
Partner agency Philadelphia Health Management Corporation (PHMC) received a grant that funded research which took the policy to four different shelters for staff and resident feedback.
“Everyone, residents and staff alike, felt this policy was important and feasible,” Lee says.
PHMC’s next step was to identify a shelter staff member to become a breastfeeding champion. This champion would be provided with free breastfeeding training, and receive an honorarium.
As program oversight changed though, “breastfeeding champion” became a job, with a list of responsibilities. So far, Lee says they’ve only found four people out of 10 shelters who are willing to take on the task.
“There are some folks in shelters working hard to make things better,” Lee says. “They are those champions, most of whom have breastfed themselves.”
Currently, Lee and colleagues are in the process of developing training for staff members and ironing out how to help staff implement the policy.
Lee’s and co-authors Alexandra Ernst MPH, and Vanesa Karamanian MD, MPH landmark paper about the 10 Steps to a Breastfeeding Friendly Shelter has been submitted to the Journal of Human Lactation (JHL).
At present, COVID has put all of this work on hold.
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