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.