Risks, Rights and Regulation
Communicating about Risks
and Infant Feeding
Breastfeeding advocates have a responsibility to examine and critique the continuously accumulating evidence concerning breastfeeding and environmental toxins, and how this information is communicated to policy makers, advocacy groups, and the general public.
The paradoxes and contradictions concerning breastfeeding are most evident in an examination of the well documented benefits of breastfeeding versus the potential harm caused by environmental toxins transmitted through breastmilk. This paper reviewed medical, social science, and advocacy literature on this topic, and investigated how research about the risks of breastfeeding was fed back to community-based health advocacy groups.
Breastfeeding is a subject of great importance to women's health, providing well documented benefits for mothers and children. In Canada, policy makers and governments have invested modestly in promoting breastfeeding, with particular emphasis on promotional messages ("Breastfeeding anytime, anywhere"). Neither provincial nor federal governments have taken steps to protect breastfeeding and infant feeding generally by acting on or legislating the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981).
Recently, there has been a convergence of interest by breastfeeding advocates, food safety activists, the women's health movement, and environmentalists with regard to what is transmitted through breastmilk. This paper focuses on environmental risks associated with infant feeding, and how contradictory information about the risks of breastfeeding is communicated to policy makers, advocacy groups, and the general public. How do women's health groups, breastfeeding advocates, and environmentalists use this complex (and often contradictory) information to inform women of relative risks so that they can make informed choices about infant feeding?
This report reviews, summarizes, and analyzes some of this research, examines what different constituent groups are doing with this information, and concludes with suggestions for future research and advocacy initiatives. It has been guided by the principle that whatever needs to be examined about breastfeeding in a polluted environment needs to be examined about alternatives to breastfeeding as well.
For most women in the world, breastfeeding is a natural continuation of the reproductive cycle following pregnancy and childbirth. In spite of the fact that there are many cultural practices that are not considered optimal by western health and nutritional standards (such as introducing foods to infants within the first few weeks after birth), the idea that many women of all social classes contemplate their infant feeding options and seriously consider suppressing lactation is probably a recent Euroamerican concept and practice (cf Fildes 1986).
To think of breastfeeding as risky behaviour and artificial feeding as a way of saving children from their mother's contaminated milk (Baumslag and Michels 1995) is a travesty brought about by new industrial processes, advances in technological surveillance and new ways of thinking about women's bodies. This approach provides occasions for more attacks undermining breastfeding, and more opportunities to confuse mothers. The decision for a breastfeeding advocate to discuss this issue now rather than "let sleeping dogs lie" is that one never knows how long they may lie; there is evidence they are waking.
Risks, Rights and Regulation: Communicating about Risks
and Infant Feeding