I woke up this morning and as I do everyday, scanned the media outlets for news that would be of interest to you the reader. One such article today was about how breast milk may give babies a metabolic boost due to micro RNA present in the milk. This got me thinking about how natural a thing this breast milk is and how substances within interact with the baby receiving it. After that point I recalled writing about a challenge to the statement that breast milk is natural and thought you might like to see what I considered to be an outrageous piece of journalism from last year.
The premise of the article is that by reinforcing that breastfeeding is natural we may hamper initiatives to increase vaccination in many parts of the world and in particular North America I would think. The idea here is that if we firmly entrench in women’s heads that natural is better then this will strengthen the conviction that we should not vaccinate with these “man made” unnatural vaccines. I am sorry to be dramatic about this but I think the argument is ridiculous and in fact dangerous.
The Definition of Natural
“existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature”
From the Mirriam Webster dictionary
Breastfeeding satisfies this definition pure and simple and there is nothing that anyone should say to suggest otherwise no matter what the motive is. The shift from formula to breastfeeding has been predicated on this notion and a plethora of literature on the subject demonstrating reductions in such things as infections of many kinds, diarrhoea, atopic disease in the first year of life as examples. In my world of premature infants additional reductions in NEC, bloody stools, have been seen and more recently in some cases improved neurodevelopmental outcomes.
In this case of irresponsible journalism a better approach if you were wanting to use the natural argument with respect to vaccines is to promote just that.
Vaccines are Natural
Someone will no doubt challenge me on this point as it would be a fair comment to say that there are artificial substances added to vaccines but there is no question the organisms that we vaccinate against are natural.
Think about this for a moment. All of the vaccines out there are meant to protect us against organisms that exists in NATURE. These are all bacteria or viruses that have likely existed on this planet of ours for millions of years. They are found everywhere and in many cases what we are doing when we give such vaccines are providing parts of or weakened versions of these natural organisms in order for us the human to mount a protective response.
This protective response is NATURAL. If we didn’t vaccinate and came across the fully virulent pathogen in NATURE our bodies would do exactly what they do when a vaccine is given to us. Our immune system would mount a response to the organism and start producing protective antibodies. Unfortunately in many cases this will be too little too late as the bacteria or virus will cause it’s damage before we have a chance to rid ourselves of this natural organism.
This is the basis of vaccination. Allow our bodies a chance to have protection against an organism that we haven’t been exposed to yet so that when it comes we have a legion of antibodies just waiting to attach this natural organism.
CNN Didn’t Get It Right
In the article which is based on a paper entitled the Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion by Jessica Martucci & Anne Barnhill the authors admit that the number of families that this actually would impact is small. the question then is why publish this at all. Steering families away from thinking that breastfeeding is natural is wrong. Plain and simple.
If the goal is to improve vaccination rates, focus on informing the public about how NATURAL vaccinations actually are and don’t drag breastfeeding down in order to achieve such goals. As a someone who writes themselves I am well aware of how personal biases creep into everything we write. I am aware of the irony of that statement since it is clear what side of the argument I sit on. While I peruse CNN myself almost daily I think the editors either missed the larger message in this piece or perhaps felt the same way. A disclosure that “the opinions of the author do not necessarily represent those of the network” does not cut it for what I would consider responsible journalism in this case.
Nineteen seventy two was notable for many things aside from the year of my birth. Canada defeated the Soviets in the summer series, the Watergate scandal took down a Presidency, The GodFather was released and for the purposes of this post breastfeeding rates in the US reached an all time low of 22%. For an excellent review of the history of breastfeeding the article by AL Wright is excellent.
Rates of breastfeeding began a steady decline in the 1960s as more and more women entered the workforce and seemingly had to choose between employment and breastfeeding. This was a time when it was not seen as being acceptable to breastfeed in public (although that is not the case in many places still to this day) and the workplace was not as conducive to supporting women as in current times (think onsite daycares). Add to this that the 1970s also saw a backlash of sorts in the appeal of breastfeeding due to science “perfecting” a better source of nutrition in formula and we had the low rates that we did. In fact through discussions with parents from that generation, mother’s who chose to breastfeed may have been viewed by some as being silly for not using something like formula that could let the whole family in on the experience. Mom, Dad, kids and grandparents could all take part in the wonderful act of feeding. Why be so selfish?
Following this period as research began to demonstrate improved outcomes with breastfeeding including reductions in atopic disease, less hospital admissions and more recently positive impacts on intelligence and your microbiome the trend reversed. In fact, as the above graph demonstrates, rates approximating 70% were reached by the late 1990s. Since that time the CDC has shown that initiation rates have continued to rise and currently are at the highest documented levels in history.
Looking at the CDC data though reveals some very important information. While the rates of any breastfeeding reach 80%, the rates at 6 months hover around 50%. This means that a significant portion of US women are using some formula when they come home and from the graph on the right about 35% by three months are exclusively breastfeeding. This number is far short of the goal the WHO has set to encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months however it is a remarkable achievement for infant health.
A recent trend on social media and print media has been the Brelfie. As you may know, this involves taking a picture of yourself breastfeeding your baby and posting it in one forum or another. This has been popularized by many celebrities and made it’s way onto the cover of Elle magazine this month.
So called Lactavists have been overjoyed to see such public acceptance and promotion of breastfeeding. As a Neonatologist I am delighted to see such high rates of breastfeeding and with it the beneficial effects that it brings.
Curiously, though all of this attention and promotion of breastfeeding has created a culture that is now being called bressure. This is defined as pressure to breastfeed and was the subject of a recent survey by Channel Mum in the UK. The highlights of the survey that went out to 2,075 mums showed:
– 16 per cent of bottle-feeding mums have been on the receiving end of cruel comments from other mothers they know
– one in 20 being attacked on social media
– 69 per cent of bottle-feeding mums said they had been judged negatively
– 41 per cent made to feel they have ‘failed as a mum and failed their child’ by not breastfeeding
– 15 per cent of mums have even lied to cover up their bottle-feeding and appear to be ‘better’ mums.
This so called bressure has led to a public campaign to increase awareness of the harassment that some mothers feel which involves taking selfies with cards having one word describing what breastfeeding meant for them. A video from Channel Mum can be seen here
While I am all for breastfeeding, I find it peculiar that the experience that breastfeeding mothers (all 22% of them) had in 1972 is now being felt by a larger percentage in 2015 who are bottle feeding. It is unfortunate that assumptions are being made of many of these women who put a bottle in the mouths of their infants. How many times does one conclude that the mother simply chose not to breastfeed because they were worried about the way their breasts would be affected cosmetically or that they simply chose to go back to work and breastfeeding would just get in the way. I suspect in most cases the truth is much different. Many of these mothers have tried to breastfeed but couldn’t produce enough. Others may have suffered from cracked nipples, mastitis, abscesses or due to prior surgery were unable to produce milk. Many such mothers have agonized over their “failure” to do something that they hear “everyone can do”. While they are told it takes some work for many that is a huge understatement. Is it not bad enough that these women have suffered the feeling of failure? To be looked at or spoken to in a disapproving way does nothing to support them. Add to this that by 3 months of age at least in the US 65% of mothers are providing some formula and it seems silly to take the “high and mighty” approach in the first couple of months and assume the worst of these women. Many of the “breastfeeders” will soon enough join the ranks of those using some formula.
Maybe the better option is to try and help. Many of the above problems whether it be producing enough quantity or pain related to breastfeeding can be addressed through tips on technique. While I am not an expert in this, hospitals would do well to increase staffing of on site lactation consultants to help mothers who wish to breastfeed get off on the right foot so to speak. A larger working force of midwives in North America in particular could certainly provide help in this regard. What I can say is that if a woman suffers a bad experience with breastfeeding in their first pregnancy the likelihood they will try again the next time is lower especially if we as a society make them feel like a failure.
Yes we need to promote breastfeeding and we should do what we can to follow the WHO recommendations and minimize the use of formula when possible. While bressure may have been intended to yield something good we need to be sensitive. Perhaps a better strategy next time a friend says they are going to use formula is to ask if they are having trouble with breastfeeding and if they need some help. Not having the discussion will ensure that nothing changes and a chance to do something will be lost due to misdirected bressure.
Its hard not to hear about probiotics these days. They are in our grocery stores as supplements to yoghurt and other foods and can be purchased in health food stores or at your local pharmacy. They appear to be everywhere as word spreads about the importance of your microbiome in maintaining good overall health.
It didn’t take long for clinician scientists to turn their attention to the neonate who is at risk of necrotizing enterocolits (NEC). It has been known for some time that formula feeding versus breast milk plays a role in the development of NEC as premature infants fed formula repeatedly were found across studies to have a higher incidence of NEC. The evidence is so strong in fact that the Cochrane review on the subject states “Enteral supplementation of probiotics prevents severe NEC and all cause mortality in preterm infants. Our updated review of available evidence strongly supports a change in practice.“ If you have read such reviews you know that they rarely come out this strong in their support of something! Furthermore, infants fed formula may have a different preponderance of more pathogenic bacteria in the colon and less lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species. The idea behind providing probiotics to neonates would therefore be to repopulate the intestine of these vulnerable infants with good bacteria and potentially reduce the incidence of a devastating condition like NEC.
If only it were that easy though
The issue of using Probiotics in preterm infants is a contentious one to say the least. While the evidence appears to indicate an overall benefit in terms of reducing rates of NEC there remain concerns regarding the safety of providing bacteria to this population even though the bacteria are thought to be beneficial. The people who urge caution in the use of probiotics say so due to a few reports of sepsis after the introduction of probiotics with the organism that the patient was provided or with a different species that was could be traced to a contaminated product. As noted in an article on CBC recently these products fall under the category of a nutritional product rather than a medication with Health Canada and therefore are not subject to the same rigorous quality control standards as other comparable medications would be.
Others while recognizing the potential for contamination and sepsis would argue that the risk is low compared to the benefit provided to the infants overall and therefore claim benefits outweigh risks.
Manipulating Breastmilk in a Double Bling RCT
Given the above concerns regarding administration of these products to neonates I was excited to see the randomized double blinded study by Benor S et al; Probiotic supplementation in mothers of very low birth weight infants. This study enrolled mother and infant pairs within 72 hours after birth to commence on maternal treatment with Lactobacillus acidodphilus and Bifidobatera lactis versus placebo until discharge. The rationale for giving probiotics to lactating mothers was based on a previous study showing less atopic dermatitis in the offspring of mothers who took such treatment while breastfeeding and in a study of breast milk demonstrating lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine transforming growth factor beta (TNF-B). Less inflammation might equate to less NEC.
The primary outcome was Bell Stage II NEC and the investigators required 90 mothers in each arm to show a difference in the incidence of NEC based on previous work in their centre. All included pairs needed to be providing >50% EBM in order to minimize any effect from formula. The overall incidence of NEC at the completion of the study was 27% in the placebo group vs 12% probiotic group and for NEC II 18% vs 4% in those treated with probiotics. The rates of NEC were quite high compared to what we typically see and the authors noted that even for their site (for uncertain reasons) there was a higher rate than they expected. Neither of the rates of NEC were statistically different (both reached p=0.15 levels) but there was a significant issue with this study.
The total recruitment was 25 in the probiotic and 33 in the control arm. This was a far cry from the estimated 90 needed per side. The reason for this goes back to the start of this blog entry. The study needed to be stopped due to poor enrolment. Why so low? The majority of mothers approached for this study did not want to risk not getting probiotics so they opted to simply take them due to the perceived health benefits that as adults they already believe exist. Sadly I think this problem would resurface in many places if the study was replicated. This loss of equipoise by the families will make obtaining consent for such studies very difficult and we may not get a satisfactory answer.
Interestingly the authors of this study also measured TNF-B and found a strong trend towards lower levels in the breast milk of the probiotic supplemented group matching the trend towards less NEC.
I sincerely hope that another study such as this can be done without such issues in recruitment as the strategy would address the issue of not providing the bacteria directly to the neonate while still potentially reaping the benefits of less NEC. For now we will have to wait and see.