Silicon Valley wants to "optimize" your breastmilk. Don't fall for it

Silicon Valley is selling digital solutions for a social problem. It's a cynical ploy that misses the real issue

Published June 6, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Mother breastfeeding baby in living room (Getty Images)
Mother breastfeeding baby in living room (Getty Images)

In the hours after my first child's birth, I held him close and stared into his blinking eyes. Like many mothers, I was awash with love for him and deeply committed to doing all I could to ensure he grew up happy, healthy and strong. I knew that, in his first few years of life, an important part of keeping that commitment would be breast-feeding him.

Breastmilk, uniquely tailored to meet the exact needs of the baby that it's made for, has long been known to provide optimal nutrition as a newborn grows into an infant and an infant grows into a toddler. With short and long-term benefits for both babies and their mothers, and the myriad ways breastfeeding aids in a baby's development, it was the obvious choice.

What was not obvious, before I had my son, was how difficult breastfeeding can be. Within hours of giving birth I was anxious about nursing. I worried constantly about whether my son was getting enough to eat; how I would ever be able to nurse him comfortably; and how I would function if I needed to feed him around the clock for the next several years, given that I had to be back to work in just a few weeks.

Until you've experienced it, it is difficult to convey the terror of being solely responsible for a newborn's sustenance and survival. Equally anxiety-inducing is the despair that sets in when you feel you don't know what you're doing.

But Silicon Valley has a solution, so they say. Many of today's brand-new mothers, often fueled by the same terror and despair that I felt in the early days of motherhood, are turning to consumer products — particularly in the tech space — to help them move through the early days and weeks of mothering.

Today, new parents can track every feeding session (including details about which side and for how long the baby fed); purchase specialty kits of breastfeeding "must-haves" (which, for the most part, contain items that can be rounded up from around the house); spend several hundred dollars to find out the exact nutritional content of their breast milk; or pay a hefty price to follow programs that claim to train babies to eat and sleep on schedules that don't respect their biological or physiological needs.

One particularly pervasive breastfeeding trend is tracking.

"I have so many mothers who are using apps to track their baby's feedings, pump sessions, milk volume, diaper output and sleep. It can become an obsession for some," says Amanda Howell, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant based in North Carolina with seventeen years of experience supporting breastfeeding mothers.

While tracking a baby's feeding habits can be useful in the first week or so of life — or until they reach their birth weight after the normal initial weight loss that comes with the transition to life outside the womb — tracking beyond that point often serves as a band-aid for parents struggling with anxiety around new parenthood.

"There's this idea that data is tantamount," Says Skylar Ibarra, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist in Brea, California, who specializes in trauma and peripartum mental health. "A lot of new parents try to use data points to quell their fears around the great unknown or the inherent anxiousness that comes with having a new baby to care for."

While tracking can serve as a band-aid for new parents' anxiousness, purchasing goods and programs can plaster over issues caused by a lack of education and support. "Babies communicate with their caregivers in a number of ways, and we can learn to notice and understand their cues," says Asaiah Harville, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and active participant in the Los Angeles County African American Infant and Maternal Mortality Prevention Initiative.

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Yet when parents don't recognize these cues, or have unrealistic expectations about infant feeding and sleep habits, they are vulnerable to marketing claims that a specific product or program will help them regain control of their life — claims that play off their insecurities.

One device encourages mothers to "be proactive and prevent low milk supply" when the perception of low milk supply presents far more of a threat to breastfeeding longevity than does actual low milk supply. Another product advertises that it will "offer suggestions for enhancing the quality of your milk" when milk quality need not be analyzed or enhanced, as it is already made to fit the needs of the infant it is produced for.

Another, a popular program for parents who prefer to pay for cry-it-out in pastel, informs moms that, if they purchase their class, they will "establish 10-12 hour nights of independent crib sleep, address night wakings and wean night feedings," from 5 months of age. Yet it is biologically normal and healthy for babies to wake through the night to eat, and night feeding is an important way for babies to get the calories they need to grow and for mothers to get the nursing session they need to maintain a robust supply. 

As unnecessary and ineffective as they are, these apps, products and programs are popular for a reason: our society simply does not provide new mothers with what they need to be successful. They are, in essence, filling a "gap."

Capitalism and sexism create conditions that make successful breastfeeding exceedingly difficult — and when women rightly find it incredibly difficult, asks them to buy back solutions that are, at best, a poor substitute for meaningful support.

This denial of support starts early. In the first weeks of pregnancy, when mothers begin to look for a care provider, most find that their only option is a hospital birth — even though out of hospital birth is known not merely to be safe, but to lead to the sort of birth experiences and postpartum care that pave the way for the physiologically normal establishment of breastfeeding.

Later, when women actually give birth in the hospital (often with rightful fear due to the disparities in maternal mortality) and find themselves traumatized, in pain, or separated from their baby during the important golden hour, they're wheeled out with a single postpartum visit scheduled for six weeks after delivery.

When they take their baby home, they often won't be able to access a lactation consultant should they have trouble or need support. And because the state and healthcare providers don't provide education regarding normal newborn feeding and sleep behaviors, many new moms might believe their breastmilk is not enough, or that they must "train" their baby to eat and sleep on a schedule.

Days or weeks or, if they're lucky, a couple of months later, they'll be forced to go back to work — long before their bodies have healed and their milk supply has regulated — all because the United States is one of few countries around the world that does not mandate guaranteed paid maternity leave. New moms might struggle to pump for their baby (if they have a breast pump) or be unable to afford to take unpaid pumping breaks in a workplace climate that offers little to no protections for workers.

Of course, some women choose not to breastfeed for personal reasons. And when women have all the information, resources and support they need to make an informed decision, this decision should, obviously, be respected. Sometimes too, women feel a deep sense of guilt or shame when they introduce factory-made milk substitutes after trying, very hard, to breastfeed.

Likewise, some women simply can't produce enough breastmilk for their baby — and they should not be shamed for this. Experts estimate (there is no hard data on this) that less than 1% of mothers will not produce enough breastmilk to fully sustain their baby.

Yet most often, women who cease breastfeeding before they intend to are victims of birth practices that interfere with the natural production of breastmilk, false narratives about supplementation, and, for whatever reason, a failure to bring the baby to the breast as often is needed to build and maintain a full milk supply. Rather than being made to feel guilty, our communities should rally for access to donor breastmilk, safe and healthy birth practices and the structural changes that need to be made to ensure that all mothers have access to all the resources, support and knowledge they need to breastfeed for as long as they wish.

In the United States nearly 1 in 5 babies receives factory made milk substitutes before their second day of life. Only 25.6% are still exclusively breastfeeding at six months.

In any case, in one of the richest countries in the world, we let our babies, and their mothers, suffer — and offer them nothing but blame and products to spend money on.

Our country, and its mothers, should not invest another dollar or minute in these band-aids. Instead, we (the collective "we," not just mothers) should demand that our government provide real solutions that create an environment in which every mother who wants to breastfeed is able to do so.

"Every mother should have access to the support that she needs," says Harville. "Mothers need support prenatally, during birth and during the postpartum period. They also need standardized parental leave, easy access to lactation support and laws and policies that support families and parents across the board and address disparities and inequities across society on the whole."

We can pray that the mothers of tomorrow have what they need, while today's mothers can take a breath and empty their shopping carts: the products they're being sold won't give them support. In addition to accessing support though a free breastfeeding support group like La Leche League, moms should feel confident that if they bring their baby to the breast on demand — and they're gaining weight, meeting their milestones and getting a thumbs-up from the provider overseeing their care — they're doing exactly what they should be doing.

"If you listen to your baby and your internal voice, you'll have all you need," says Howell. "When you meet your infants needs you're teaching your child to trust you and, when you feed your baby on demand, your baby will be satiated. Having a happy baby leads to a happier mother!"

And, of course, a supportive circle helps: "Cultivating a conscious community of people who have the same parenting philosophy can make a big difference," says Ibarra. "When people have access to the support and education they need, they are empowered to make the choices that are best for their baby."

The baby I held in my arms and worried over nearly eight years ago went on to exclusively breastfeed for a good long while. His little brother did the same and his baby sister, born into my arms at home last summer, now spends several hours a day nursing, breaking her latch only to smile up at me or giggle as her brothers dance around her. I can only hope that one day, should she choose to have a child of her own, our society will give her the support she really needs.

By Julia Pelly

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