In a recent magazine article, Ms. Bundchen was quoted saying that breastfeeding should be the legal norm for all babies for the first six months of life.
Of course, this generated a storm of protest about "feeding choices" and whether or not we should listen to someone with her lack of credentials. Lost in the fabricated drama and controversy is the fact the we must listen if her advice and high profile can save babies' lives. I'm sure that this one famous mother's words will be heard and heeded by more mothers than we pediatricians can possibly reach. (Ms. Bundchen's statement that post partum weight loss is faster because of breastfeeding is very much in line with current medical literature and will certainly appeal to most new mothers.)
It's easy to misinterpret a forceful metaphorical statement about "chemical food"--infant formula--and the crucial lifesaving value of breastfeeding for six months. And, that's exactly what pundits did to turn this into an "us against them" issue. "How dare she . . . "
While it is tragic that a supermodel-mom dispenses better advice than many doctors and most governmental agencies, it's impossible to misinterpret what the World Health Organization says about these artificial (chemical) feeding options:
The protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding rank among the most effective interventions to improve child survival. It is estimated that high coverage of optimal breastfeeding practices could avert 13 percent of the 10.6 million deaths of children under five years occurring globally every year. Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life is particularly beneficial, and infants who are not breastfed in the first month of life may be as much as 25 times more likely to die than infants who are exclusively breastfed."
There is a common misconception that in emergencies, many mothers can no longer breastfeed adequately due to stress or inadequate nutrition, and hence the need to provide infant formula and other milk products. Stress can temporarily interfere with the flow of breast milk; however, it is not likely to inhibit breast-milk production, provided mothers and infants remain together and are adequately supported to initiate and continue breastfeeding. Mothers who lack food or who are malnourished can still breastfeed adequately, hence extra fluids and foods for them will help to protect their health and well-being.
If supplies of infant formula and/or powdered milks are widely available, mothers who might otherwise breastfeed might needlessly start giving artificial feeds. This exposes many infants and young children to increased risk of disease and death, especially from diarrhea when clean water is scarce. The use of feeding bottles only adds further to the risk of infection as they are difficult to clean properly."
Moreover, not breastfeeding has been found to double the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)
Read just one sentence above aloud:
"Infants who are not breastfed in the first month of life may be as much as 25 times more likely to die than infants who are exclusively breastfed."
No parent in America is allowed to let their infant travel in a car in the "second best" way possible: Car seats are the law in all 50 states. A breastfeeding law will not be passed soon, but there is a moral, ethical and medical imperative to get this nutrition information to mothers and families any way we can. Hyperbole is easy to ridicule but, in this case, the hyperbole will prevent the deaths of many, many babies worldwide.
The World Health Organization estimates that one-and-a-half million babies die from lack of breast milk each year. 1,500,000.
If Gisele Bundchen's magazine interview, comments and the resultant furor cause more mothers in developing nations to breastfeed, thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of babies will be alive a year, two years or five years from now who might otherwise have succumbed to diseases caused or fatally exacerbated by lack of mother's milk.
I certainly wish that this legal proposal/metaphor had been issued by the government, health insurers or the American Academy of Pediatrics. In lieu of those recommendations, the very intelligent suggestion of a really smart mom will have to do.
Follow Jay Gordon, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JayGordonMDFAAP