Waarom en wanneer gaan de hakken in het zand?

Why does information on the healtheffects of (not) breastfeeding often creates so much resistance and such emotional responses?

Increasingly I wonder why after all these years of information on the healtheffects and advantages of breastfeeding the message just does not seem to take hold. The content is clear and is passed on by trustworthy and well-meaning persons and institutions. But the intended public seems to be hardly welcoming the information.

At a conference about food in Berlin this week I had an interesting epiphany in what is possibly going on.
I attended a lecture by 4 experienced, acknowledged and as far as I know unbiased scientists with a well documented presentation on the conditions for optimal braindevelopment in children. And I got very irritated. I had to force myself to keep listening and not interrupt them with cynical remarks.

Which is surprising because the evidence they presented was clear, scientific and to all appearances free from sponsoring.  The conclusion of the presented research is that consumption of oily fish enhances braindevelopment of young children in utero and in the first years of life. And oily fish might be replaced by fishoil supplements.

A simple attainable outcome:

  1. Eat oily fish at least 1 x per 2 weeks, especially during pregnancy, breastfeeding and in the first years of life.
  2. If that is not an option do take fishoil supplements.

And the scientific evidence is clear: measurably better braindevelopment and less behavioural problems. So what was causing my negative mental response?  I noticed it was all about attainability:

  • If all humans start eating fatty fish at least 1 x per week the seas will be irreparably overfished even faster than they are now (most oily fish is seafish).
  • If fish were so vital for braindevelopment countries without acces to the sea would be suffering from high rates of brainrelated diseases and problems.
  • A normal varied diet should be sufficient for normal development of normal children.

In summary the advice does not seem attainable to my and so my hackles rose and I stopped listening. I did hear the researchers present their data but mentally I was busy formulating contra-arguments. And not of the highest quality either to be honest. Most was along the lines of ‘Well I do think the Swiss, the Austrians and the Peruvian people seem to be doing fine in spite of a diet low in fish’.

An interesting reaction to be sure. Remarkably similar to the response to breastfeedinginformation. Which is only too frequently met with clear or covert resistance. Would attainability play a part for others too?

That would imply that the image of breastfeeding in our present society makes it difficult to pass on information. And the aspect of ‘attainabiltiy’ may be different for each respondent:

* 8-12 feeds per 24 hours, lasting 30-45 minutes per feed (1)
A possible response by a healthcare worker who has been trained only for the fist weeks of life might be ” that is not attainable for anyone, especially not when you have to sit with stitches after birth and mess about with cushions for each breastfeed’. While a mother might respond instinctively with ‘don’t mind me but no way I’ve got time for that. How do they think I’d live a normal life if I have to sit down for 45 minutes every 2 to 3 hours’.

* Breastfeeding should not hurt (2)
The average maternitynurse or midwife will instantly react with ‘Well nicely put but I know that in reality is does hurt for most women. So either the person saying this has no idea what he/she is talking about, or this is an overly optimistic promotional talk’. And the expecting mother that has seen her peers struggle in the first weeks of breastfeeding will have a similar reaction.

* Breastfeeding is the optimal food for a baby and will adapt to the age and enviroment of the child (3)
A doctor or healthvisitor will realise right away ‘but we do have to supplement with vitamine D and K’, and ‘but that is not true for premature babies’. And most pediatricians will visualise the failure-to-thrive babies they regularly see on their wards.

Maybe it is about time we start to take a fresh look at the marketing of breastfeeding. At the same conference I attended a lecture stating that a certain wellknown softdrinkcompany has an advertising budget of 3 bilion dollars. I presume the formulaindustry has similar funds. They look at brands, at emotions, and they are able create consumerneeds even where these did not previously exist and then respond to these needs.

Healthy unprocessed foods do not have anywhere near these budgets. A top-quality product with meager marketing will at present loose the competition to a unhealthy product with good marketing. It’s time to start being creative and see what we can do differently with what we do have: a top-product.

So do me a favour and notice when you find yourself resisting well-documented scientific information? So not marketing or advertising but real information. Where do you start listening, what is your trigger?

Let’s do our own marketing research in order to put our top-product where it belongs: at the top of the market.

Oh, and in the meantime have some oily fish? I’ve learned it’s really good for your brain.

1) And it is not needed: more frequent feeds usually mean shorter feeds, and breastfeeding can be done without piles of cushions. Simply sitting on your own couch with your baby in your arm. But a lot of healthcare professionals and mothers don’t know this (any more).

2) And it is true. But that does not mean breastfeeding does not ever hurt. It means pain is a clear sign not all is well and it needs to be taken seriously. Moreover some discomfort is normal as soon as we do anything unusual with our bodies. Be it breastfeeding in the first weeks, a new sport, painting the ceiling or spending hours sitting still in a plane or train.

3) Optimal is as good as our lifestyle: a mother with low vitamin D levels will not be able to pass on sufficient D to her baby. And moreover few people realise formula is supplemented with vitamin D and K too. These vitamins are not naturally present if freezedried cowsmilk either.

Stubborn as a mule. Boys on a beach try to coax a recalcitrant animal into action. Photograph, early 1900’s. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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