By Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ICCE, IBCLC, ANLC
Each year the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy (WABA) chooses a theme for World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) celebrations around the world. WBW is celebrated every year during the first week in August. This year’s theme is “Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet”.
The 2020 objectives are:
- 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.
For more on WBW check out this action folder by BPNI.
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