I have worked as a doula for many women like Felicia Boots. Wealthy, beautiful, sweet and determined to be the best possible mothers in the world. Women who have gamely transferred their whole lives, tiny children and all, to this big, old, ugly, lonely, rain-swept city of London and thus put thousands of miles between themselves and the Mom and Pop whose comfort and warmth cannot be replaced by any number of lavender-scented hours of “pampering” in the local “Day Spa”.
Felicia’s is a dreadful story which throws harsh light on how powerful and destructive postnatal depression can be. It’s briefly told: This lovely mum of two gave up her antidepressants because she was worried that the drugs could harm her breastfed baby. She then spiralled downwards (court reports say) into what looks more like puerperal psychosis than postpartum depression and developed delusions that her children would be taken from her. She then took the lives of her two little children.
Let’s get one thing absolutely straight: this was not a story about breastfeeding and depression – it was a story about depression. I am interested in how this was reported and the results are mostly encouraging – but not entirely.
When I saw the headline in the Telegraph yesterday it highlighted the connection “Postnatal depression” and “breastfeeding” very aggressively. I went online today and found that this had been toned down.
The Sun referred to breastfeeding quite far down the story, commendably not sensationalising its connection with the depression aspect:
“She was prescribed antidepressants but had not been taking them after becoming convinced the babies would be taken away from her because of the effects of the drugs on her breast milk.”
The absence of an explanatory note for readers to the effect that research indicates that the “effects of the drugs” would not hurt the baby is to be regretted. I know Sun stories have to be short but there was room for this.
Many other news outlets played down the breastfeeding aspect and avoided headlines on the lines we would have feared – hooray! Maybe a message is getting through to some of our friends in the media!
But The Times, which seems to be fighting hard for the coveted title of the World’s Most Anti-Baby Newspaper, had to have something to put in its regular Anti-Baby Supplement (commonly called T2) so it not only pumped up the breastfeeding angle but followed with a front page trail for a feature article the next day (1 November):
“How safe is breastfmilk? The truth about depression and breastfeeding”
The message we take from this headline is that breastmilk may well be unsafe and that there is a connection between it and depression, right?
So let’s turn to the article. Emotive headline “Love, drugs and breastfeeding”.
The article by Peta Bee contrives to build up the breastfeeding/depression connection while at the same time pretending to disclaim it. She begins by describing Felicia Boots’ “fears” of affecting her children with antidepressant drugs as “misguided” then launches into her real agenda:
“Yet were her concerns, shared by many women prescribed medication during and after pregnancy, really that irrational?” (my italics.)
The short answer to this question is Yes, they were. But Peta Bee has space to fill so we get the full works on how there is “insufficient reliable data” on the effect of minute trace elements in breastmilk; how heavy metals are found in breastmilk; how experts are vague about advice on alcohol intake while breastfeeding; padded out with some information from Australia which “found that children who are solely breastfed for the first six months of their lives, as is recommended in the UK, are at a 1.5 times higher risk of developing a nut allergy”. Point one: sole breastfeeding for 6 months is a global recommendation, not just a recommendation in the UK. Point two: nut allergy is still mysterious and the diet of the women studied is not mentioned. Then Bee goes on to say that “most worryingly” breastmilk “tends to attract heavy metals and other environmental contaminants such as poluttion adn chemicals from paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, air fresheners and cosmetics”. “It sounds terrifying enough to turn any new mother to the formula bottle. But should she?” By now we are just two paragraphs from the end of the article. Most readers don’t get this far but will have skimmed through and spotted the words “Breastmilk” and “paint thinners” fast enough along with the obligatory sniping at:
…the unequivocal “breast is best” mantra places presure on [women] to persist, even when breastfeeding is difficult or painful.
Does it really, Peta? Do you have any proof of that?
“More than 95 per cent of women with postnatal depression or postnatal anxiety who were questioned by the Australian mental health charity, beyondblue, last year said difficulties with breastfeeding and resulting guilt had contributed to their illness.”
Blame the breastfeeding, then. Not the inadequate breastfeeding support. Not the fact that most of these women were trying to do something they’d never seen anybody else do in their lives…
Bee gives over one paragraph to remarks from Pat O’Brien, an obstetrician at UCH in London to the effect that the environmental toxins in breastmilk are no more than the levels in the environment babies exist in. The final paragraph, squeezed down at the bottom of the second page, concludes:
For any woman who fears her breast milk might be “contaminated”, the overwhelming medical advice is that there is little to be concerned about. “It is easy to isolate these factors so that they become unnecessarily worrying,” O’Brien says. “Breast milk will not put your baby at risk and we really should not become too paranoid about evidence to the contrary.”
After the front page scare headline, the article headline, who would have thought it, eh?
There is a huge omission in this article which makes me feel very angry with my old employer: no comparison is made AT ALL between breastmilk and formula milk. The reader is allowed, even invited, to assume that formula must be as safe, even SAFER, THAN BREAST MILK.
Yes, amazingly, there is a winner from the reporting of this tragic story: The formula manufacturers.
And The Times’ take on this story is right in the middle of Baby Milk Action’s “Nestle-Free Week” campaign. Coincidence? Dear heaven, I hope so.
Opinions about anti-depressants and breastfeeding do vary quite a lot. While her own paper’s medical advisor Dr Mark Porter lists it as one of the “safest of the new generation”, the respected mental health charity MIND mentions Sertraline, to take one example, among anti-depressants of questionable effect on breastfed babies. It’s a minefield out there and it’s easy to see how Felicia Boots could become frightened. And where things are vague, women are more likely to take away from opinions such as Dr Porter’s conclusion: “If a woman still can’t be convinced [that using antidepressants in breastfeeding is safe] then I would prefer she stopped breastfeeding than came off her medication” the message “STOP BREASTFEEDING”.
My gripe: Today in The Times we have a whole double page spread about negative aspects of breastfeeding with not ONE SINGLE negative aspect of formula feeding EVEN MENTIONED. Sorry about the italics but the more I think about it the crosser I feel…
I would like to read just ONE, just ONE feature in The Times which actually talks about breastfeeding positively – the rush of oxytocin, the feeling of well-being, the convenience and the sheer pleasure of it for lots of women – instead of the obligatory side-swipe at its “difficulty” and “pain”. Wouldn’t you?
And I would love to be sure that Peta Bee did not get any helpful advice for her article from Nestle. Wouldn’t you?