Moms: One Solution to Tainted Milk

This morning I read that East Asian chocolates are the latest fallout from the ongoing melamine-tainted-milk crisis. Certain chocolate candies have been testing positive for melamine — even those produced under such name brands as Cadbury and M&Ms.

As distressing as that is to inveterate chocolate consumers (like me), the real crisis of course is the health of an estimated 52,000 Chinese children who were poisoned through the chronic feeding of infant formula and milk tainted with melamine. Apparently, unscrupulous manufacturers had been diluting milk to save a Yuan or two. But because testing would show the milk was weak, tipping off regulators or consumers to their ruse, the manufacturers laced their fraudulent product with melamine. A nitrogen-rich — but potentially toxic — chemical used in some fertilizers and plastics, melamine can fool some analyses attempting to gauge milk quality on the basis of nitrogen (usually a measure of the dairy product’s protein).

“<!—->China is not the first, or only, country to fall prey to contaminated baby formula. But we must make it the last. And we do know how,” argues pediatrician Caroline Chantry of the University of California, Davis. That solution: breastfeeding.<!—->

Chantry is president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine and a strong advocate of raising infants on their mothers’ milk. There are loads of reasons why breast milk is superior to infant formula for babies and to regular milk for toddlers and preschoolers.

Most people know that breast milk helps speed the maturation of a baby’s gut and immune system. But there’s more. Individuals who were initially breast fed for several months or more tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and rates of obesity as adults. Breast-fed children tend to face a lower risk of developing diabetes and exhibit better cognitive skills. A recent World Health Organization report surveys the data on these apparent benefits.

Breastfeeding for even a month or two is preferable to formula feeding from day one, Chantry notes. However, she adds, since breastfeeding benefits are dose dependent, the more months a baby gets mom’s milk, the more benefits he or she stands to derive.

Yet a stigma still persists in some cultures that breastfeeding is so Bronze Age — hardly the practice that embodies 21st century working moms.

In truth, eschewing breastfeeding is largely a tiny, 20th century blip on the child-nutrition timeline. Many (if not most) really modern moms — especially those in the developing world — would happily offer this food to their babies if our business leaders gave moms the time off and access to their children essential to establishing prolonged breastfeeding.

The World Health Organization advocates feeding babies breast milk — and nothing else, even water — for the first six months of life. WHO further recommends that moms provide breast milk as an adjunct to weaning foods for another 18 months. Yet what do really enlightened business leaders from Wall Street to Wal-Mart offer their new moms? A generous six- to 10-weeks paid leave.

After that, mom, you’re on your own — and your child is on the bottle. It’s one price that working women from Boston to Beijing pay to earn money for diapers, rent and (if they’re lucky) health insurance.

As much as I applaud what Chantry and her group recommend, I think their argument is too simplistic. They call on “public agencies worldwide to renew education and support for breastfeeding.”

Yes, some cultures no longer prize breastfeeding as they once did. And for women in such societies, education may engender an interest in nursing their infants. But all too many women today turn to formula feeding because society offers them few alternatives. Impediments to breastfeeding have become entrenched and now represent a norm that few women or physicians, as individuals, can overcome. Increasingly, moms have to work outside the home during their childrearing years, and businesses have not adapted to the dual role of these women as employees and producers of the very best infant food.

The worst thing, of course, is that breastfeeding is viewed as a women’s issue. It’s not. It’s a universal good because those who benefit are the girls and boys who get a more healthful start in life. Breastfeeding is also a boon to men whose children tend to remain healthier from babyhood, and to employers whose workers may need fewer days off to care for sick children.

What business and health leaders need to do is figure out how to revamp our working culture in a way that allows for nursing moms to do their part for business—and our next generation’s health.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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