Glints of hope and control in a burning world

As I gathered my thoughts for an Earth Month and infant feeding installment, I got an email notification that Valerie McClain had published something new on her Substack. Of course I hurried over, because her pieces are always illuminating. She writes in Standing on the Precipice:  “We are self-destructing on our Mother Earth, and she may be the last woman standing amidst the rubble and miles of corpses.”

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-little-kid-touching-tree-with-hand-3932861/

In all of the pieces and years past that we have covered the connections between infant feeding and planetary health, it never actually occurred to me that there might be a scenario where Mother Earth outlives us. This will surely strike some of you as naive, absurd, delusional, or something else considering what has happened and continues to happen on our planet. Even so, I envisioned humans dying alongside our planet, our self-destruction agonizing and inevitable, as we claw, infect, and deplete Mother Earth with our beastly antics, taking down the innocent in our path to complete decimation. 

On a recent trip to The Museum of Modern Art, I was shaken out of this sense of Doom and flurry of eco-emotions. Victor Grippo’s lead containers with beans first spoke to me, metaphors “for the force and persistence of life”. This display coupled with Niki de Saint Phalle’s phrase “What is now known was once only imagined” infused me with a little glint of hope that I’ve been craving. 

Then on a Throughline episode about consumer protections and trust in and accountability from companies and elected leaders, I heard the voice of Ralph Nader. He offered: Cynicism is “a cop-out. That’s an indulgence. That’s an indulgence of quitters that makes them feel good. Because when you’re cynical, you’re obviously smart, aren’t you? You think you’re smart. No, you’re not smart. You’re playing into the hands of the corporate supremacists. You’re playing into the hands of the few who want to control the many who could easily outvote the few and make the corporations our servants, not our masters.” This offered me a shift in perspective too.

Source: https://www.gifa.org/en/international-2/green-feeding/

Among the hopeful is coverage of the Green Feeding Tool by Kristi Eaton. Eaton quotes Julie Smith, co-creator of the tool: “…with the Green Feeding Tool—designed to provide policymakers, climate scientists, advocates and others with clear data about how increasing support for breastfeeding can help save the planet—we have the evidence to support action.”

Now, consider this headline: Breast milk can expose babies to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

“For decades, physicians and scientists have touted breast milk as liquid gold for its immunological benefits.

But nursing parents with considerable exposure to cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,’ or PFAS, may unwittingly be exposing their babies to these compounds as well…” the author begins. 

The article acknowledges contaminated water could be a potential source of PFAS which infant formula is often mixed with. The author also includes that “the benefits of nursing likely outweigh the potential risk of PFAS exposure through breast milk.” [Note the language used here. There are generally no benefits to breastfeeding. Instead, there are risks associated with not breastfeeding.] 

Nikki Lee asks some important questions: “Why doesn’t formula get tested for these chemicals?  Do folks believe that somehow cows are protected against pollution?”

As with anything, there will be risks associated with any variation of infant feeding. 

Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell points out that if toxins are being detected in human milk, it means we need to reconsider the products being used in industry.

Photo by willsantt: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-breastfeeding-her-toddler-under-the-tree-2714618/

The author of Study Finds High Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Mothers’ Breast Milk quotes Erika Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future who shares a similar sentiment: “’If we want to make pregnancy and breastfeeding safe and free from PFAS, we really need to eliminate the use of these chemicals and products, so that we can have clean food, clean air, and clean water… We really don’t believe that responsibility should be placed on individuals when we need regulations to end the use of these chemicals.’”

In the predicament(s) we find ourselves in, I’d like to leave you with a few more of McClain’s words: “A mother cannot control events such as: wars, sieges, shortages of infant formula and pitocin, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes; but she has a semblance of control in her and her baby’s world through breastfeeding. Dependency on always having access to infant formula, health care, freedom from human or environmental violence, should be tempered with the reality that there may be times, when all the civility of life vanishes.” 

More for Earth Month 

Industry lies and the Code

Infant feeding and planetary health go hand in hand 

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly 

Goats and Soda’s How do you keep calm and carry on in a world full of crises?



The elegant and complex systems of flavor and nutritional programming

— This post is part of our “Where are they now?” series where we catch up with some of our very first Our Milky Way interviewees from over a decade ago! — 

“The societal and clinical impact of promoting sustainable food habits is significant, since what a child eats determines in part what the child becomes. (Mennella, et al, 2020, p. 291)

 

The pop of poppy seeds in aloo posto, cough-inducing spice in stir-fried lotus root with chili peppers, the meaty texture of a bowl of Cuban black beans. 

The dishes we crave tell stories. 

“Our food preferences have meaning,” Julie Mennella, PhD begins. “They’re more than just a source of calories. Food preferences provide families with identity.”

[Rough Translation’s Tasting at a Distance and Forgotten Foods of NYC’s Appetite for Home — Bitter-Sweet Memories of Learning to Cook & Eat in America both present beautiful audio embodying these connections.]

Elegant and complex learning systems 

The multidimensional interactions we have with food begin with our mothers. A fetus is passively exposed to the flavors of the biological mother’s diet through amniotic fluid, and the infant goes on to interact with these flavors through human milk. Mennella and her colleagues have called this “intimate bidirectional chemosensory communication.” (Mennella, et al, 2023)

In this complex communication, “diet and xenobiotic exposures of the lactating parent, due to lifestyle choices or necessitated by medical treatments, affect not only milk production and milk composition but also the infant’s biological responses, either beneficially or adversely,” the authors continue. “Developing alongside the chemosensory signaling is the seeding and maturation of the infant microbiome, which transfers and exchanges with that of the parent and of the milk, forming additional bidirectional linkages.” (Mennella, et al, 2023

Infant formulas, although available in many varieties, do not foster this elegant exchange and where developing food preferences are concerned, present a static flavor.

“That constant flavor doesn’t reflect the culture [a child] will grow up in,” Mennella comments.  

The same goes for infants fed jarred and pouched baby foods (what we’ve referred to as “the packet apocalypse” where the convenience of “ready-to-feed-super- glop” has largely replaced the art of dining and sharing meals.) The explosion of the baby food industry means parents often don’t feed their children what they themselves eat. Families can feed their babies canned peas, but never eat a pea themselves, Mennella points out. 

Mennella’s research has always been interested in flavor and nutritional programming in humans and the development of food preferences, but over the last decade, it has diversified to ask questions about the taste of pediatric medicines from a personalized medicine perspective, determinants of sweet and salt preferences during childhood, the development of psychophysical methods to study olfaction, taste and chemesthesis across the lifespan, biomarkers for dietary intake across the lifespan, and reproductive state effects on dietary intake and weight loss in women. [Retrieved from: Monell Center

Collective, family- focused approach

Mennella summarizes a few key points from her work. 

“Children live in different sensory worlds,” she says. ”They are really sensitive to the current food environment.” 

And like she and her colleagues have written, the food environment rich in added sugar and salt that caters to preferred human taste, provides challenges for all of us. 

“Fortunately, our biology is not necessarily our destiny. The plasticity of the chemical senses interacts with experience with foods to modify our preferences, producing an interface between our biology and our culture, our past and our present.” (Mennella, et al, 2020, p. 291

In order to influence our destiny, Mennella says that the strategy can never be for the child alone. She suggests there be more attention paid to the family as a whole in order for healthy behaviors to be sustainable. 

She nods to the success of peer counseling programs and recommends bolstering these opportunities for families to interact and learn from one another. She says she envisions primary care taking on a community approach to provide not only a forum for education but also opportunities for interaction between families.  

Where science and policy meet 

Mennella recognizes that ultra-processed, convenience foods are palatable and often inexpensive and deems this a “much bigger issue.” 

Her research has guided national and global health initiatives like the USDA and HHS Pregnancy and Birth to 24 Months (P/B-24) Project, the Breastmilk Ecology and the Genesis of Infant Nutrition (BEGIN) Project, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. [WHO recently released its new guideline for complementary feeding of infants and young children 6-23 months of age. Read about it here.]  

As science evolves– where the picture gradually becomes more crisp and for every one question asked, fifty more arise– policies and practice must reflect and catch up to the robust body of evidence in order to best support child and family health.  

Read our 2012 coverage with Dr. Mennella here



LCTC participant is a catalyst for change

Natasha Aldridge has endured two laparoscopic surgeries and induced menopause to treat stage four endometriosis. Through it all, she found herself bouncing from doctor to doctor, looking for ways to manage pain and to get answers. The process was all-consuming, forcing her to exit nursing school prematurely.

“I was very unhappy with myself,” Aldridge shares. “I felt like my body was broken.” 

Eventually, struggling through the personal challenges, Aldridge identified the larger forces at play. 

“I realized how maternal health needed to be easier to navigate and more accessible,” she comments.

Now, Aldridge works as what she calls a Perinatal Professional and Maternal Ambassador. Her business, Natural Queen Essentials, supports feminine wellness from the first menstrual cycle through menopause. Her collective work includes facilitating holistic wellness options,  Trauma Informed Doula Trainings through Cocolife.black  and volunteering for The MOM’s Tour (Maternal Outcomes Matter)  to provide information on lactation and the importance of doulas.

Aldridge is also an Advanced Prison Doula  with Ostara Initiative where she supports women in local jails and helps to educate staff about milk expression and storage. She partners with The Diverse Birth Collective, Project Empower and  Virginia Prison Birth Project to facilitate peer support groups, prenatal yoga and the transport of milk.  Currently, only six states “have laws with written policies on breastfeeding and lactation support for incarcerated postpartum people in the U.S,” according to the National University-Based Collaborative on Justice-Involved Women & Children (JIWC)

Aldridge is one of the most recent individuals to earn the Accessing the Milky Way scholarship, and she says her studies through the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC) have already helped her help others like cheering on incarcerated moms and babies during their first latch.  

“It’s a domino effect,” she says. “The more knowledge I provide through peer support, the more information will pass through the justice system.” 

Aldridge was drawn to the LCTC because she found she lacked the ability to provide lactation and breastfeeding support. She shares that she “easily gave up breastfeeding” with her two daughters, because she was never educated on the impact of infant feeding. None of the women in her family breastfed either. Aldridge struggled through postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs) too.

“I didn’t have the capacity to even know where to begin,” she says. Like so many mothers, Aldridge’s language pins herself as the responsible one for not breastfeeding, when in reality, breastfeeding is not a one-woman job and requires greater systemic supports.  

The LCTC is illuminating many details about infant feeding and its history, Aldridge shares. She says she’s finding the counseling portion “excellent as well” and is able to apply the strategies to all areas of her career. 

“Knowing the background and the science is pulling everything together in my whole journey,” she says.

In the beginning of September, Aldridge spent time on Capitol Hill with Mom Congress learning about policy making and how to tell stories to help influence legislation important to families, one of the elements essential to improving infant feeding practices in the U.S.  

Aldridge was also recently honored with the Catalyst of Change award from Endo Black, Inc.–a Black women-led advocacy group founded by Lauren Kornegay for Black women living with endometriosis– which “recognizes an ambitious leader and influential person in the endometriosis community… [who] engages the community in a meaningful and high-impact way.”

Aldridge’s ambition and accomplishments are certainly ones to celebrate, but she says that it’s all bigger than herself. 

You can support Aldridge’s work by following her on social media @naturalqueenessentials. Watch for the release of an in-the-works newsletter for another way to get connected.



Donor milk delivery by electric vehicle

I never considered myself much of a car person; that is until I discovered a vehicle with a personality and a vital mission.

This vehicle is decorated in “vibrant…indigo and white…featuring the components of human milk…[and] a snowdrop, known as the milk flower,” as described in this piece.

What’s more, the EV was “sustainably wrapped using water-based resin ink and PVC-free media.”

I first learned about the car on Amy Brown’s Breastfeeding Uncovered page.  The EV is the product of a partnership between Swansea University and the Human Milk Foundation which set up a donor milk hub in Wales. The car runs donor milk deliveries and pickups across south and west Wales, expanding the reach of the charity Blood Bikes Wales, an organization that provides a free courier service to the NHS, as explained by Brown here.

Samantha Hoskins has been a breastfeeding peer counselor for 13 years, and since having a baby a year ago, she has donated over  15 liters of her milk to the mission. Hoskins is one of more than 100 women who have donated more than 250 liters of milk since the launch of the donor milk hub.

Photo courtesy of Hoskins

“I’ve always had a keen passion for breastfeeding; there isn’t enough done in our local health board to promote and help the new mums with breastfeeding so I always try to do what I can, help when I can…,” Hoskins says.

She continues, “I don’t think enough is known about breast milk donation. I know there are mixed views about it, so I try and promote it when I have a collection to try and normalise it. To show people that it is something that does go on, to show there is a need for it, to show that it’s something good, to increase knowledge, for realisation that it’s human milk for human babies…
not cow’s milk for human babies.”

Hoskins aims to express her milk once a day.

“I don’t stress about it,” she shares. “Whether it feeds one baby or two, it’s better than none is how I look at it.”

Hoskins goes on to explain the process of preparing milk for transportation which says is very easy: “I express into a bottle that the milk bank provides that also fits my electric pump. When I’ve finished, it goes straight into my freezer. I take a temperature check every day and document it in the paperwork they send.  When I have enough for collection – at least two litres, I email the milk bank, they inform Blood Bikes Wales, who then contact me to arrange a
collection day and time. When they turn up, the milk is taken out of the freezer, the time is noted and put into the blood boxes that fit on the motorbikes. [It’s] then taken straight to Singleton hospital where it gets pasteurised and ready for babies.”

Hoskins reminds us that the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

“I wish I had the time to help change that, one woman at a time,” she longs.

Liter by liter of liquid gold, women like Hoskins are helping to change that!

You can connect with Hoskins on social media here.

Across an ocean, advocates in the U.S. are working to expand access to donor milk. Take action to support these efforts here.

Reflections from a volunteer CLC working on naval base

Many of our Our Milky Way interviewees launch into their advocacy for
healthy infant feeding after they’ve endured personal situations with their
own babies. This is not Crystal Grask’s, CLC origin story into the world
of breastfeeding though.  Now the mother of a darling little one, Grask
serves as a Red Cross volunteer lactation counselor at Naval Base Rota
in Spain, but her road to breastfeeding started before becoming a
mother.

We’re pumped to feature this interview with Grask this week on Our
Milky Way.

On discovering her passion for maternal child health…

I had really no insight into maternal child health until I found myself
interviewing for the Communications Coordinator position with the Rocky
Mountain Children’s Health Foundation and Mothers’ Milk Bank. Once I
obtained the role, I started working directly with Laraine Lockhart-
Borman, the then director of the milk bank…her staff… Donor Relations
Coordinators, Certified Lactation Educators, Doulas and more. I found
myself immersed in a totally new world and was soaking up the
knowledge like a sponge. Everyday I learned something new about
breastfeeding, donating human milk, or lactation and the impact these
things have on the mother-baby dyads and the families we served.
As I learned…I found myself becoming more and more passionate about
helping moms, babies and families have successful happy starts in life.
Through the RMCHF and MMB I learned about the the Lactation
Counselor Training Course (LCTC), learned about the importance of
breastfeeding, saw firsthand the impact donating and receiving donor
human milk had on mother-baby dyads and families, and was able to
observe and glean insight into dozens of parents’ feeding journeys
through the Foundation’s  programming and milk bank’s weekly Baby
Cafe pregnancy and postpartum moms groups.

On completing the LCTC…

… Life happened, and I was unable to take the course during my tenure
at the [RMCHF], but the passion didn’t go away. It continued to blossom. I moved to Washington State where the course wasn’t offered,
but I remained passionate and steadfast in my desires using my
previous knowledge about breastfeeding/lactation to help providers (OBs
and Pediatricians) communicate with their patients about breastfeeding. I
knew I still wanted to work in this realm, and decided that once I was
able to obtain my CLC certification, I would like to pursue a private
practice.

In 2020, the course became virtual, which allowed me to start my
training! I started in December of 2020, and soon after, we moved to
Spain with the Navy. It was there I finished my training, in June of 2021. I
loved the virtual nature of the training and found – even when I was an
ocean away – I could tune in, interact during office hours, and complete
the course with ease. I really appreciated that!

On her own breastfeeding journey…

Flash forward five years… I found myself breastfeeding my daughter,
Julieanne, and having a rough journey. We started off feeding well,
resolving minor latch issues right off the bat. However, despite having a
small but adequate supply, she struggled to gain weight. Our pediatrician
immediately suggested formula supplementation, and I struggled with
that suggestion. My husband was a huge supporter of breastfeeding,
and also felt like there wasn’t a huge need to supplement. I was able to
reach out to prior colleagues… for observations, but neither of them
could find anything truly amiss. My daughter latches well and has always
been very healthy, but didn’t gain weight well no matter how much or
what we were feeding her. We discovered she has a very high
metabolism and strong passion for eating, so I found myself feeding
round the clock, triple feeding for a few weeks, and eventually settling
into a combo-feeding routine. While it wasn’t my picture perfect image of
how our breastfeeding journey would go, I am proud to say we’re still
largely breastfeeding and she’s gained a significant amount of weight.

Photo by Taylor Marie Photography

I hope to help moms receive the support I lacked in the immediate
postpartum. With consistent help and follow-up observations, perhaps
we wouldn’t have needed to supplement. I want to be that resource for other moms, to help them feel validated, encouraged to meet their goals,
and support them no matter what their feeding choices are.

On landing her volunteer CLC position at the naval base…

One of the first things I noticed after arriving at Naval Base Rota was the
multitude of pregnant women around. We were still living in COVID
times, and I quickly learned while there was support for moms to
breastfeed from a command standpoint, there were not many staff or
programs available to support the station’s breastfeeding dyads either in
hospital or at home postpartum. I knew I could help bridge this gap.
After exploring a few different avenues, I found I was able to sign up with
the Red Cross as a volunteer CLC at the Navy Medicine Readiness and
Training Command Rota (Naval Hospital Rota) Maternal Child Infant
ward! This role gives me the unique opportunity to help moms within
hours after delivering her baby, and help these dyads and families start
their feeding journeys feeling confident and supported.

On a typical day in this role…

I come in, check in with the nurse on duty or head nurse for a rundown
of our patients to learn about their delivery(ies), their baby, their current
health situation, and how feeding has been going thus far. I also ask if
mom/family has presented them with any concerns/questions about
feeding thus far, so I can be as prepared as possible when I first meet
with a mom.
After ensuring I have all the information/resources ready, I go meet with
the mom/baby dyad/ family. While in their room, we talk about how mom
is doing, I meet their new little one, and we go over how their feeling
about feeding thus far. I often provide latch assessments, and observe
feedings while in the room as well. Sometimes, during this, we’ll be in a
more relaxed setting, and mom will ask questions about any concerns
she has for when she goes home, which I answer or refer her to her
provider or the base’s Visiting Nurse if it’s a subject outside of my scope.

Once my initial visit is over, I will make a follow up plan with mom if
desired, then input notes and do any supplemental research for her. At
my follow up visit (usually that day or the next) I will give her any
resources we discussed and provide answers to her questions.
In the LCTC, we focused a lot on listening to mom, hearing her story and
using that, her experience and her health history to guide our
counseling. I think I use that often to meet moms where they are and
give them the care they deserve. I also find I’m teaching the asymmetric
latch often, even to second and third time moms! I also cover hand
expression and storage guidelines often. We get a lot of questions
around pumping and building a stash of milk for returning to work,
especially for active duty moms.

I have also started seeing postpartum patients in the hospital’s OBGYN clinic.

On unique challenges…
Grask at Rota Breastfeeding Week 2023 presenting topics like skin-to-skin and hand expression 

I think there is a strong desire to help breastfeeding moms here, but
there is an apparent lack of resources, especially for postpartum moms.
The community has one Visiting Nurse who is a rockstar seeing many
moms daily, but she’s unfortunately the only one able to do so at the
moment. To help bridge this gap, I’ve gained approval to have a small
business, Asbury Breastfeeding Counseling, and am offering my
services to moms in the community in addition to my work as a
volunteer. I’m also working with the Visiting Nurse and hospital MCI
leads to host monthly breastfeeding courses at the hospital, promote the
existing pregnancy and postpartum support groups, and soon will be
offering a BYOBB (Bring Your Own Baby and Breastfeed) class at the
hospital for new moms to learn the various positions they can breastfeed
their babies in and be available to answer any questions/troubleshoot
any feeding/latch issues in person.
We also hosted Rota Breastfeeding Week helping educate the
community here on what is available for new moms and showcasing the
various lactation spaces. We also had a latch on nursing event.

On goals for next year…

 

Over the next year, I hope to reach more moms and families to help
them feed successfully… I know this community’s resources are slim. I hope to establish these classes and have imparted education to staff so
when I ultimately transition out of this station, I know I am leaving moms
with supportive providers who can help her achieve her goals.

Some favorite breastfeeding stories…

While working at the Mothers’ Milk Bank, I was able to sit in on several
Baby Cafe postpartum support groups. During a few of these groups, I
met a parenting duo and their little one. No matter what they did, this
mom struggled to make enough for her little one, but desperately wanted
to make breastfeeding work. I listened and observed them for weeks,
learning from their interactions as a couple, parents and individuals and
gleaning insights from the [lactation care provider]  helping them.
Ultimately, I believe they began to feed with donor milk and formula, but
it was their journey and the persevering passion to help their baby and
family thrive that left an impression on me.
Here in Rota, I have been lucky enough to see a few of the moms I’ve
helped in early days several months postpartum. Two such dyads come
to mind. One was a new mom, baby born a couple weeks early had had
an ample supply of milk. Due to her baby’s early arrival, the baby was
transferred to a Spanish hospital where they received formula instead of
her breast milk. I saw her about five days postpartum and her milk
supply had fully come in but the baby was fussy and struggled to latch.
We worked on several techniques, including skin-to-skin care, cross-
cradle and football holds, asymmetric latch and also discussed ways to
pump/store milk. I was worried as this mom seemed to be ready to give
up quickly, but I ran into her six months postpartum and her once small
baby was now thriving on breast milk! It was a beautiful thing to see and
she is still breastfeeding.
In January, I served the family who had the first baby of the year. The
parents were first time parents, and had no idea what to expect or how
to navigate breastfeeding now their arrival had made her debut. Mom
and I worked on recognizing feeding cues, latching, promoting skin-to-
skin care, using dad for support, and discussed various ways to pump– hand express, manual, double-electric, wearables, to help her build a
supply later on. Soon after I had my own baby, I ran into this mom at a
moms group and found breastfeeding was going well for her! Her little
one was steadily gaining weight and she felt confident in her feeding
routine and encouraged by the support she had received early on. I was
elated at this update and so happy to see them thrive.
Personally, breastfeeding hasn’t been as easy as I’d like, but when I feed
it is the most wonderful, almost indescribable feeling. One of my favorite
stories I have is from my early postpartum days. I had been hanging out
skin-to-skin with her on the couch and accidentally fallen asleep. A little
while later I awoke — to a baby suckling on my breast! I had heard and
known about a baby’s natural instinct to find the breast, but I hadn’t expected her to seek it out and find it on her own when she was so new
to the world. Now she giggles whenever she sees my breast and is
especially excited for boob food time!