Friday, 9 November 2012

Can we and should we measure "lactastrophe" rates?

This started as a links post, but my commentary on the first link got long enough to qualify it as a post in and of itself! It turns out I have a little more to say about this topic than I realized. First, please go read "How often does breastfeeding just not work?" from the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine blog:

From a health and wellbeing perspective, however, I’m not sure that it matters whether we “count” both “biological” and “perceived” insufficient lactation together. The total burden of this problem is enormous, and mothers are suffering, whether they lack glandular tissue and or they lack self-efficacy and support. We need mothers for whom lactation doesn’t work to know that they are not alone. And we need to demand research to develop the tools that will identify the underlying problems and allow us to implement the appropriate treatment.

We also need to step back from assertions that every mother can breastfeed, if she just tries hard enough. As Neifert has written, “The bold claims made about the infallibility of lactation are not cited about any other physiologic processes. A health care professional would never tell a diabetic woman that ‘every pancreas can make insulin’ or insist to a devastated infertility patient that ‘every woman can get pregnant.’ The fact is that lactation, like all physiologic functions, sometimes fails because of various medical causes.”

It's a great post and great comments. The one thing I would add is that while it does us no good to bicker about whether this person or that person "truly" had a low milk supply, on a public health/policy level I believe having these statistics could help push for change. It's also not useful to spend time picking apart an individual's c-section as "necessary" or "unnecessary" - but when we look at two hospitals, select out their low-risk populations, and compare their c-section rates, we can start to see what might be attributable to environment and what might be unavoidable. It provides a basis for us to say to the hospital with a 40% rate, "Hey, all these surgeries might seem necessary to you, but let's see what might be some underlying causes."

I have been talking with a colleague about the idea of a prospective survey tracking a population of women who are getting "ideal" breastfeeding support - women delivering at a mother- and baby-friendly facility, who have good prenatal education and postpartum support for breastfeeding, and are generally very committed to making breastfeeding work. What is the rate of "unplanned undesired weaning"/"lactation dysfunction"/"lactastrophe" among women with near-ideal circumstances? (Or as ideal as you can get in a country with no mandated paid maternity leave...) I think the results would help guide us, not toward a way to pick apart whether an individual woman "could have made it work if she tried harder" or "didn't really have a low milk supply", but towards an understanding of what is possible. Sometimes I get tired of hearing "lots of mothers don't make enough milk" and "some people just can't breastfeed". I get tired of hearing these statements not because I don't believe they are true - they are depressingly true - but because they are recited as if they are unpreventable, unmodifiable facts. If the data is used carefully and correctly, it could serve as a benchmark for measuring how much farther we can go towards preventing "lactastrophes" for all mothers.

Still, I want to inscribe that last paragraph on a freaking 10-foot-tall stone tablet somewhere and make every parent-to-be, support person, doula, and health care professional read it out loud before they receive their first education on breastfeeding. Why do so many people imbue breastfeeding with a magical evolutionary resiliency that nothing else possesses? (Is it just an overreaction to the opposite problem, the attitude that breastfeeding is fragile and usually destined to fail?) Real people suffer when those around them adopt the attitude that "every woman can breastfeed." Nuance often gets lost in the rah-rah atmosphere we use to try to shore up most women's (dismal) expectations for their breastfeeding success, but it is so necessary right now when more women than ever are trying to breastfeed and more are confronting medical conditions that make it challenging or impossible.