Jennifer Grayson is an author, journalist, columnist, and a leading expert on environmental issues. UNLATCHED: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy is her first book and her global exploration of the breastfeeding uproar and the bond that makes us human. #WorldMom To-wen Tseng is featured chapters six and seven of the book.
A conversation with Grayson:
What inspired you to write the book?
I had a few epiphanies that ultimately led me to write Unlatched, but the first one happened when I was pregnant with Izzy, my older daughter. One afternoon, I went to get the mail, and there was one of those maternity marketing “gift” packages waiting for me, with a large container of infant formula inside.
I had planned on breastfeeding, but like a lot of expecting moms I was nervous at the prospect of being my baby’s sole source of nourishment for the first six months. Could I really make it that long? So I went to the pantry to stash the formula, just “in case.” But before I could, my husband stopped me to look at the ingredients on the back of the package. I’m usually an obsessive label reader, so I was shocked when I turned over the container and saw corn syrup, soy oil, a plethora of unpronounceable ingredients… I had never even considered what was in this substitute that we so readily offer as an alternative to the breast. And then I realized: Hey, this is what I was exclusively fed as a baby! Those printed ingredients, on the back of that plastic package, were the building blocks of my life. I’ve struggled with chronic health issues since adolescence, and for the first time in my life I considered that there could be a connection.
The book is subtitled “The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy.” You explored some amazing and even shocking history about breastfeeding and bottle feeding. What impressed you the most?
One of the most surprising discoveries had to do with when, historically, the shift from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding first occurred. I had always thought it was during the 1940s and ’50s—the whole “better living through science,” post-war consumerism era where breasts became hypersexualized and Marilyn Monroe became an icon in a pointy bullet bra. But the shift actually began an entire half-century before, in the wake of America’s Industrial Revolution, in the late 1800s. For the first time in history, women were working in factories for long hours away from home, and they were living in big cities or even an ocean away from their own mothers and grandmothers who would have taught them how to breastfeed in generations past. It was these women—out of desperation—who first began experimenting with artificial breast milk substitutes, and to disastrous results. In fact, death by artificial feeding was one of the greatest public health issues of the early twentieth century.
And what’s really fueling the “mommy war” controversy?
I truly believe that the root of the current mommy wars is the utter lack of support for most mothers in American society. Nearly 80 percent of US mothers now start off breastfeeding, yet half give it up entirely or start supplementing with formula after just a few weeks. Why? Well, we’re one of pitifully few countries in the world without paid maternity leave, there is scant medical support for nursing mothers, and there are zero regulations on formula advertising in this country. Many governments around the world—like Taiwan’s, as you know—have taken dramatic steps to rectify this, in the name of public health. But more and more in the US, being able to exclusively breastfeed for the six months recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization boils down to a question of economic privilege. These are harsh truths, and I think it’s been easier to point fingers at each other than uncover and deal with the real issues.
Throughout the book we see that the benefits of breastfeeding have been well documented by many researchers. Do you feel, however, that breastfeeding is normalized in our society?
Well, I think that the very fact that we refer to it as the “benefits” of breastfeeding makes it very clear that breastfeeding is not normalized in our society. It seems more like formula is the norm and the natural elixir that our bodies have provided for eons is now seen as some sort of “boost”—like the one you might get from a pack of vitamins. But human milk is the human norm, and there are very real risks associated with not breastfeeding a child—including increased incidence of gastrointestinal and respiratory infection, obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukemia and SIDS.
As an environmental journalist and a mother who breastfed her oldest for four years, surely you’re aware of those benefits of breastfeeding in the first place. Did you learn anything new when writing this book?
One of the most profound things I learned was how little we truly know about breast milk—which is not merely a foodstuff but an extremely powerful human tissue packed with complex nutrients, hormones, bioactive molecules, ancient microorganisms, and thousands of other compounds that scientists have yet to understand or even discover. We finished sequencing the human genome more than a decade ago and yet we still don’t have a comprehensive library of what’s in breast milk!
As you point out in the last chapter, human milk is becoming a big business. Why is that unfortunate? What would breastfeeding be like in an ideal world?
As any nursing mother knows, breastfeeding is more than just the transfer of a “liquid gold” of nutrients; it enables a profound connection between mother and child—one that has persisted throughout human existence. So yes, as science continues to discover more exciting things about the compounds present in breast milk, hopefully society will be encouraged to prioritize breastfeeding. Still, we have to be careful not to fixate only on breast milk itself, which is already happening: Formula companies and biotech startups are racing to distill human milk down to its essence, and it is now one of the most valuable commodities in the world, worth four hundred times the cost of crude oil. But do we really want what is free and available to nearly all mothers to be sold back to us in a bottle one day? In an ideal world, alternatives to a mother’s own milk would always exist for those who need it, but mothers would have the critical support they need to be able to breastfeed their children as long as they want to.
Did you breastfeed you own babies? Where do you stand on the breastfeeding controversy?
This is an original post to World Moms Blog by To-Wen Tseng.
Photo credit to Harper Collins Publishing.
I’ve recently introduced a picture book into my family’s reading time called “I Have the Right to Be a Child” by Alain Serres. With beautiful simplicity, the book provides the author’s interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention includes things like rights to education, gender equality, nutrition, health care, free speech, freedom from child labor, safety, etc. For kids, the book is a conversation starter about human rights. We talked a lot about the question, “What are rights and what are privileges?” For adults, the book is a reminder that these concepts really are not that complicated. It may be complicated in the implementation of granting rights, but when the rights themselves are asserted in the simple language of the children the Convention seeks to protect, it all becomes much more clear.
This is probably the first time my kids saw human rights presented in a way that was meaningful to them. In American museums and text books, the right to vote for women and people of color seems faraway and a “done deal.” They don’t think of those rights as things we continually need to address here and in other countries. My children often help me advocate to give children in developing countries access to school and vaccines, but the language of “rights” isn’t always included in those kinds of discussions.
My youngest really latched on to the page that said,
“I have the right to express myself completely freely, even if it doesn’t always please my dad, and to say exactly how I feel, even if it doesn’t always please my mom.”
We have a lively ongoing debate about how that plays out. If she has the right to express herself completely freely, how might that compete with my perceived right not to be disrespected in my own home or the rights of her other friends and family members?
It might be surprising to Americans to learn that while 194 states in the world have agreed to the Convention, the U.S. has not officially ratified it. In fact, every member of the United Nations except Somalia, the United States, and South Sudan are party to the Convention, having agreed to change or make laws and to develop practices and programs to support it. The U.S. has signed to show support, but hasn’t “ratified” it. Ratification requires being bound by international law and having to report regularly to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors compliance.
Why hasn’t the U.S. ratified? Katie Jay – author of the “Children Deserve Families” blog told me that recognizing that children have a right to a safe and secure permanent family is cutting edge human rights law. The idealistic part of me scoffs at that, saying;
“Really? Cutting edge? To provide security, safety, and nourishment to children is cutting edge?” But the lobbyist part of me knows that it can sometimes be a tricky thing for a country to formally declare something as a “human right.”
Because once you officially do that, then you have to do something about it…or be held accountable by an international authority and possibly give up your moral high ground if you are then seen as a country that doesn’t live up to its own standards. Sadly, from the standpoint of an American citizen who has watched our behavior on international environmental agreements with dismay, I can tell you that Americans generally don’t like the idea of international authority holding us accountable for just about anything.
Has your country ratified the Convention? Take a look at this paraphrased list of rights for children from the book and consider which of them you think are rights or privileges. Are all of them rights? What would be the ramifications for your country to truly grant that right in your country? Internationally? What benefits or problems do you see that could arise if the world embraced the Convention wholeheartedly?
- I have the right to a first name, a last name, a family, and a country that I can call my home.
- I have the right to have enough food to eat and water to drink.
- I have the right to live under a roof, to be warm, but not too hot, not to be poor and to have just enough of what I need, not more.
- I have the right to be cured with the best medicines that were ever invented.
- I have the right to go to school without having to pay.
- I have the same rights whether I am a girl or a boy.
- I have exactly the same right to be respected whether I am black or white, small or big, rich or poor, born here or somewhere else.
- I have the right to be helped by my parents, my friends, and my country if my body doesn’t work as well as other children’s.
- I have the right to be free from any kind of violence, and no one has the right to take advantage of me because I am a child.
- I have the right to go to school and refuse to go to work.
- I have the right to be protected by adults and to be sheltered from disasters
- I have the right never to experience war or weapons.
- I have the right to breathe clean air.
- I have the right to play, to create, to imagine, and also to have friends.
- I have the right to learn about friendship, peace and respect for our planet.
- I have the right to express myself completely freely.
This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Cindy Levin.
I am sitting at a gate in Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) waiting for my flight back to Seattle. You may be wondering…”How does she have time to sit and write with two girls while she is at the airport?”
If my girls were with me, I definitely would NOT be writing.
I would be mulling this post over in my head while I watched them burn off steam running over and under seats before getting on the six hour flight back home. The beauty of this story is that I got the weekend off from mommy duty to travel east 3,000 miles to go to a wedding in New York City! I know, I mean, I really do know – LUCKY ME!! (more…)
This week’s Friday Question comes from World Moms Blog writer Karyn Van Der Zwet of New Zealand. She asked our writers,
“What are three bits of parenting advice you’d give a friend who was pregnant for the first time?”
Here is the advice some of our World Moms would give their friends…
Kally Mocho of New Jersey, USA writes:
“1. Read “Twelve Hours Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old: A Step-by-Step Plan for Baby Sleep Success” by Suzy Giordano. The title says it all.
2. Baby wipes can be used for so much more than just wiping your baby’s bottom. I use them to clean my children’s shoes. (It’s one item some moms can’t live without!)
3. Take all advice with a grain of salt (including mine). Everyone and their mother will tell you how you should handle your newborn. Only you will know what’s best for your child. Know that the advice given to you comes from a place of love, not judgment.” (more…)
Today’s Friday Question comes to us from our founder, Veronica Samuels. This week she asked our writers…
“Why do you blog?”
And here are the responses from some of our World Moms…
Alison Lee of Malaysia writes:
“I love to write and I’m pretty opinionated and where better than to express it in my own little space? I also enjoy connecting with fellow moms, learning from their experiences, sharing in their joy, sadness and triumphs. I get a lot of satisfaction from blogging and have gained some friendships along the way. What’s not to love?”
Check out Alison’s blog at http://mamawantsthis.blogspot.com. (more…)