Photo: UNICEF Ukraine
I lost my appetite at the first pair of breasts I saw in public. Seven-years-old, I smothered my small plate of chicken fingers and fries in a mess of ketchup. Next to me was a woman breastfeeding her squirmy newborn. The mother caressed the baby’s bald head with one hand, while holding a fork in the other. With each suckle, the baby burrowed closer to her mother’s bosom. She cooed, the mother smiled.
“Gross,” I thought. I didn’t touch the rest of my meal.
Magazine racks plastered with glitzy and silicone-stuffed tits had taught me to fear breasts as if they were taboo lumps of sex — not the fundamentals of food and nutrition. And as I grew from that seven-year-old drooling over a plate of fake tomato paste yet disgusted by natural feeding, I also grew to resent those magazine racks.
Breasts shouldn’t be confined to a symbol of sex. They shouldn’t provoke discomfort. They shouldn’t stare you down in grocery store lines while asked to be covered in restaurants. They’re food. They’re medicine. They’re a celebration of life.
Director Noemi Weis crafts this celebration in her poignant and visually stunning documentary Milk, which dives into the global politics and commercialization of birth and infant feeding. The documentary describes the voice of a woman during birth as an “ancestral voice, a profound voice that strengthens, not only the woman, but all of humanity.”
But unfortunately, this voice is being dulled by the marketing and business of birth — a business of quick deliveries, effortless feeding, and powdered formula. According to Noemi, our natural process is being interrupted and juxtaposed by the industry and the commercialization of birth and infant feeding.
“It’s a distraction to nature,” Noemi says.
Infant formulas often carry substitutions for nutrients, like purified cow’s milk, whey protein, and vegetable oils. But simple breast milk is loaded with natural ingredients, like taurine and lactoferrin for protein, self-digesting fats for energy and brain development, hormones and enzymes for healthy growth, and a surplus of vitamins, minerals, and antibodies.
Women have the right to choose how they want to feed their children. And while formula may be the only choice for some women, science has shown that infants who receive breast milk have at least six times a greater chance of survival in the early months of life — due to the decrease in risk for acute respiratory infection and diarrhea. According to the UK Millennium Cohort Survey, there exists a direct link between six months of exclusive breastfeeding and a 53 percent decrease in diarrhoea hospitalizations as well as a 27 percent decrease in respiratory tract infections.
Not only does breast milk promote development, nutrition, and survival by fighting diseases with antibodies from the mother, it reduces the risks of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and childhood asthma later in life. And for the mother, it diminishes the risks for postpartum hemorrhaging, type-II diabetes, and breast and ovarian cancers. Yet, only 39 percent of children less than six months old in the developing world exclusively breastfeed.
Why is that?
A number of legitimate reasons certainly exist, among them: AIDS, breast cancer, breast reduction, adoption, lack of nutrition for the mother.
There’s also the personal choice of mothers who make informed decisions.
“If the mother makes an informed decision because it was her choice, then we have to support her because it’s her decision,” Noemi explains.
But, the real problem, as Noemi points out, “is when the mother hasn’t had the right information and surrenders to and accepts the voice of anyone looking after her in that weak moment following birth.”
If the mother is having a difficult time within the first moments of breastfeeding, this voice often rallies for formula over breast milk. And if it’s not the voice of her doctor, it’s the voice of the formula companies.
In fact, out of the $58 billion a year in global market revenue of commercial baby food, $5 billion is spent on marketing alone. This marketing and economic incentive to discourage women from breastfeeding is displayed in the blatant glamorization of formula and breast milk substitutes like Nestle or Similac Advance. But despite the obvious nutritional differences between breast milk and its substitutes, formula companies still actively campaign for their products by providing hospitals with discharge bags of formula coupons and bottles for new mothers. (However, the percentage of hospitals who continue to distribute these bags have dropped in recent years.)
Formula companies are implementing their cynical marketing in times of crises, using manipulative slogans like: ‘Similac. Because of Science‘ and ‘Good Food, Good Life.’ They’re making breast milk substitutions that much easier to accept.
In the Philippines, $500 million of baby milk products are imported each year, drawing $1 billion in sales. After Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, there was “no mercy with milk product advertisements.” At the time, only 1/3 of infants were using formula. After the crisis, 3/4 had received infant formula within 24 hours. And as the Philippines is the third most disaster-prone country in the world, breast milk is crucial for a healthy immunity and protection from infected water and malnutrition.
But when the mother is misinformed and discouraged from breastfeeding, she resorts to other ways to keep her baby fed. This can include mixing water with sugar or buying the coffee creamer Bear Brand. From lack of education and access to nutrition, these women either view all white liquids as having the same nutritional value as milk or have no other options.
“There’s no borders, there’s no difference in the socioeconomic background of the women or what language they speak. None of that matters,” Noemi explains. “Who doesn’t like free gifts? Especially in the time of emergencies, women should be taught to breastfeed — not to accept free gifts of formula. These women need to be better educated in advance. Education is fundamental.”
In 1981, the World Health Organization and UNICEF developed the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. This code, in an effort to reduce child mortality, took action by banning the inappropriate marketing of baby food while encouraging breastfeeding and pushing the use of milk substitutes only in most dire situations. A similar code in 2012 was established in Kenya, which strictly enforces the sanctions against baby food manufacturers and anyone in violation of the act.
But for the women who cannot breastfeed, their babies still have the right to proper health. One way to achieve this is through the age-old custom of milk sharing. In Brazil, a network of human milk banks started in 1943 as an effort to battle infant mortality of premature babies. In 1985, however, when most milk banks around the world closed down due to the crisis of HIV and AIDS, Brazil continued to push the normalization of breastfeeding. Raising awareness through various campaigns and donation programs, Brazil works to highlight the benefits of milk banks as well as the scientific means to kill the virus in donated milk. Since 1985, Brazil has dramatically reduced the infant mortality rate from 63.2 per 1,000 births to 19.6. Yet still today, this custom remains a source of controversy.
“We need to do anything we can to unite our voices. Unless the communities and women work together, and unless the voices of everyone can be heard, governments are not going to make these changes. Unfortunately, it has to start from the top to make a difference. But that top has to be provoked by the bottom,” Noemi says.
By stopping the intrusion on Mother Nature, early nutrition will lead to a healthier and more successful society.
“More than anything, my hope is that more education will come through. I hope that nutrition becomes something that is looked at from the very beginning – from the very first moment. I think people forget that we’ve just brought a new life into this world, and we’re now responsible for that baby. And that baby has a right to the best nutrition possible. I went all the way to Kenya for a celebration of life to bless the newborns, and I think that’s something [my] audience shouldn’t forget. There’s a magic in bringing a new baby into the world, and we have to be strong and unite everybody’s voices. It’s a celebration of life.”