Breastfeeding and Politics — A Tale of Two Michel(l)es

Once upon a time when Gabriele Palmer wrote “The Politics of Breastfeeding”  20 years ago, she was not alluding to Democrats, Republicans or members of the Tea Party.

But what is considered a health issue by many experts became a partisan issue last week after First Lady Michelle Obama commented on the role of breastfeeding in preventing childhood obesity, a recent IRS reversal to allow deductions for breast pumps and encouraging US hospitals to aim for Baby Friendly status.

Soon newswires and blogs were abuzz after Rep. Michele Bachmann criticized the First Lady for creating a “nanny state” by encouraging breastfeeding and supporting the IRS decision to allow breast pumps to be classified as medical devices.  Who chimes in next but Sarah Palin with the remark: “No wonder Michelle Obama is telling people to breastfeed their babies….Yeah, you better, because the price of milk is so high right now.”

A pertinent portion of the Washington Post article: The discussion has both riveted and dismayed the breastfeeding community, so to speak. “We all expect this – we all know the Republicans and Democrats have their differences,” sighed Marsha Walker, a registered nurse who is executive director of the National Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy.

Referring to Bachmann, Walker said: “It’s not that she’s against breastfeeding. It’s that she’s using it as a vehicle of attack. And it’s unfortunate, because breastfeeding isn’t a political entity. It’s a public health entity that doesn’t deserve to be used as political leverage.”

Like all controversy, things have begun to settle down at this point.  But I doubt they all agree happily ever after when it comes to party lines.

On a happier note, congratulations and thanks to UC San Diego Health System for developing and sharing the Supporting Premature Infant Nutrition (SPIN) program to help mothers produce and provide sufficient breast milk for their premature infants. Their innovative program is available to anyone with computer and Internet access.

“Our online tools allow mothers to learn about our program and follow the steps at their own convenience. Since not all hospitals will let mothers and their premature babies have skin-to-skin contact, the videos will also serve as a teaching model for other health institutions and patients,” said Stellwagen. “SPIN’s overall goal is to improve the manner in which neonatal intensive care units across the nation support optimal nutrition and growth to premature infants.”

The links are valuable to lactation professionals and parents alike.  The site has a variety of patient resources, such as pumping log sheets, milk recipes, lactation research and publications.

The SPIN program has fostered an increase in premature babes receiving mother’s milk by 15% since its launch in 2008.

“Human breast milk provides several benefits for our most vulnerable population of patients, including an increase in I.Q., stronger brain growth and a decreased rate of infection and intestinal complications, like necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which dropped from a rate of six to under two percent with the SPIN program,” said Lisa Stellwagen, MD, lactation director of the SPIN program.