to breast or not to breast? that is the question!

to breast or not to breast? that is the question!

Mention the word 'breast' and there's sure to be a reaction. If we watch TV or read a magazine we can't get away from them.  By default or design, they are bigger than ever, and hard as it is to imagine, it's taken 50 years for plastic surgeons to discover that silicone implants may be not such a great idea. 

In 1982 the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery announced that small breasts are a 'disease' that needs addressing with breast enhancement surgery (no conflict of interest there then...). Currently 25,000 women a year in the UK and 300,000 in the US agree.

But to highlight just how skewed our Western obsession with breasts has become, it wasn't until 2005 that the Scottish parliament made it illegal to prevent a child from drinking milk in public, even if that milk was from its mother's breast. Seriously. And it took the UK parliament another 5 years to do the decent thing (Section 13 of the Equality Act, 2010 in case you ever need it) and make a similar law allowing breasts to be used for their primary function in a public place.

This last month The Guardian has been having a breast fest. In June, Florence Williams, whose book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, was just published, wrote an article (almost identical to one she wrote for The New York Times back in 2005) about the latest research into breasts and in particular breast milk. This month Zoe Williams reviewed Florence's book.

It seems that until recently all this studying of breasts has been of the 'wrong' sort - apart from diseases like breast cancer it turns out we don't know that much about them. But as Florence tells us, that's starting to change. The latest research is turning on its head everything that scientists thought they knew about the breast and in particular about breast milk.

Previously thought to be sterile (like urine - yes urine is sterile) the milk is in fact teeming with up to 600 species of bacteria, most of them completely new to science. Furthermore, each mother's milk also contains complex sugars produced specifically to feed, not the infant but the beneficial bacteria in the infant's digestive system. Since the digestive system contains some 70% of the body's immune system, it makes perfect sense that during the critical period when the baby is developing its own immune system, breast milk would enhance that process. The milk also contains endo-cannabinoids, which act as appetite regulators encouraging the infant to eat regularly, but not too much. In fact breast milk contains 100% of the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of everything an infant needs to thrive, and then some. Florence describes Biotech companies pasteurising (and in the process surely destroying the health giving bacteria mentioned earlier) and packaging donated milk as "immunonutrition" for premature babies, while an enterprising Japanese company has started a trend marketing lactoferrin (a glycoprotein from breast milk) as an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal immune booster.

If the mother can do it, and with support from her midwife most women can, breastfeeding seems like a no-brainer: hygienic, convenient and the perfect mix of ingredients for her child. In parts of the world where access to clean water is difficult, anything other than breastfeeding can be literally dicing with death.

But the same research that discovered the previously unsuspected extent of the life enhancing properties of breast milk goes on to suggest that perhaps breast is not best after all. Despite its perfect score on what the baby needs to grow, our breast milk, like everything else in our increasingly unnatural and over chemicalised environment, contains toxins. Chemicals accumulated throughout the mother's own history and stored in her fat cells, make their way into her breast milk. In light of this research even Norway, with the world's highest rate of breastfeeding (99%) and a total ban on formula advertising, is currently considering changing the advice given to mothers.

Interestingly, back in 2005 when Florence discovered the toxic potential for breast milk, she checked the levels of toxins in her own milk, weighed the benefits and possible down side and chose to continue to breast feed her children. Yet in her Guardian article all the focus is on the dangers of breast milk and nothing at all on the root of the problem and the necessity of cleaning up the environment. Perhaps we should see the toxins in breast milk as the canary in the mine - as an indication of how far down the road of pollution we have travelled.

Toxins from the petro-chemical industry are now endemic in our world and found throughout the food chain. The higher up the food chain (we are at the top) the more the toxins concentrate. From new furniture, paint and carpets, food containers and skin cream, flame retardants and air fresheners, chemicals known to be toxic are everywhere.

Doused with talcum powder, slathered in baby oil, wrapped in a plastic covered disposable nappy and put to sleep on a polyurethane mattress treated with flame retardant and covered in a waterproof PVC (polyvinyl chloride) sheath, the baby will have been exposed to some of the most toxic and environmentally unfriendly chemicals before it falls asleep on Day One.

How we care for our baby once it arrives is an opportunity to give it the best chance and reduce the chemicals in its life while it's still in an environment we can control - our own homes.

We all, new mothers included, would do well to take a good look at our world and consciously choose what we do and don't allow in. Often there are inexpensive alternatives. Sometimes we need to go back to 'old fashioned ways'. Sometimes we need to look at the actual 'cost' of convenience in terms of our health and ask if we are happy to pay it. If we are thinking about getting pregnant, it makes sense to work on reducing our own toxic load before we conceive. Cleaning up our diet is an easy place to begin. The advantages of breast milk are immense, not just for the growing baby but also for its long-term health. It's long been known that breast milk contains substances that protect against a whole range of cancers. Reference 1. Reference 2.

Formula made from cow's milk has similar issues with contamination without the upside and if the toxins are a problem in breast milk, what about the toxins the mother is exposed to during pregnancy?

Agreed, it's especially heartening that breast milk is finally receiving the attention it deserves and that 'breast is best' may be more true than was ever imagined. But to consider throwing the milk out with the baby's bathwater, while not addressing the source of the toxic load of the baby and its mother, or considering the immense upside seems more than shortsighted. Just saying'.

Florence Williams, The Wonder of Breasts. The Guardian Friday 15 June 2012

Florence Williams, Toxic Breast Milk? The New York Times 9 Jan 2005

Zoe Williams, A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams - A Review The Guardian Friday 13 July 2012

Making Our Milk Safe

The Lancet, Volume 332, Issue 8607, Pages 365 - 368, 13 August 1988. Infant Feeding and Childhood Cancer

Mossberg et al. HAMLET Interacts with Lipid Membranes and Perturbs Their Structure and Integrity

Does Mother's Milk Transfer Environmental Toxins to Breast-Feeding Babies? Scientific American, January 26, 2010

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