All babies deserve breast milk

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Kristina Wyman's picture
Lee Ann Pelletier

Noemi Weis, writer and director of the documentary Milk: Born into this World, hosted a screening in conjunction with Global Studies, Latin American Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies and Women’s Studies. The chair of the Women’s Studies department, Dona Kercher, introduced Weis.

“It was very, very challenging for me to be able to see in person malnourished babies. It emotionally was very tough. You read about them, you see them in pictures, but when you see them in real life it’s emotionally very draining.”

The film looked at women and babies from 11 different countries. Stunning visuals of communities from around the world would deliberately cut from well-off cities to shacks in extreme poverty. It was here where Weis saw children who were malnourished because the over-advertised formula did not have the same benefits of breastmilk, which the children could no longer obtain by that point.

Each mother’s unique experiences were explored without judgement.

“In this particular film, one of the most important things for me as a mission is to unite the voices of women from around the world,” said Weis.

The location and name of the women were not out rightly mentioned in the film, as to show the similarities between women everywhere.

“For me they represent a symbol of thousands of other women…From the reactions that I get from the public, there’s a lot of identification. ‘this could be me,’” said Weis.

The intimate interviews of Milk featured many different responses to the controversial issue of breast feeding versus using formula. A French mother breastfed her toddlers and decided that her children would wean themselves when they were ready. Meanwhile, a mother in the Philippines could only eat once a day and couldn’t produce breast milk. She also couldn’t afford formula, so she used Bear Brand coffee creamer or a sugar and water mix to feed her starving infant. A mother in the U.S. chose to use formula exclusively.

In countries with poor sanitation and poverty, using formula is extremely hazardous for a child. Children end up malnourished and sick because bottles cannot be made safely. Any donations by formula companies only last a few months instead of the necessary two years. Mothers who receive formula donations think that formula is better for their children than their own breast milk, so their babies don’t learn how to breastfeed and can become sick from lack of nutrients.

“If there’s a possibility of spending the money in natural resources, training people to support that woman to breastfeed that’s what should happen,” said Weis.

Ideally, breastfeeding should start in the first hour so the child can get preventative benefits and strength to grow.

However, as one mother explained, the formula companies are ruthless. She was sent bottles and boxes of formula in the mail from the information her hospital gave out without her knowledge. The tape measure to measure the length of her son after his birth was even made by Enfamil.

“Really, we should trust the mother’s body,” said Terry Wefwafwa, Head of the Division of Nutrition, Ministry of Health, Kenya.

The reality is that over 1 million babies die globally from lack of breastfeeding each year. When the World Health Organization tried to combat vast infant mortality rates they passed guidelines for appropriate formula advertising. The U.S., which is one of the world’s top formula producers, did not implement these guidelines.

“Yes, the formula has to be used when needed, and the World Health Organization says it, too…use it when needed, but don’t push it when you don’t have to,” explained Weis.

Cultural differences were also examined in Milk. The patience of ancient communities who know “the woman’s body has not changed” was deliberately juxtaposed with the rush of hospitals in the U.S. to deliver children. The story of Weis’ daughter exemplifies this difference.

Weis’ daughter was pregnant in the hospital, and the midwife was impatient. The midwife broke the daughter’s water with her fingernail to induce labor, which almost killed the baby. The baby was stuck without the water, so an emergency C-section had to be performed.

In the U.S. other obstacles exist for mothers, such as the threat of a demotion or the loss of their jobs for taking time off to care for a newborn.

The U.S., Papa New Guinea and Suriname do not give paid leave for the birth of a child. When U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney wanted to take family leave, she was told she’d have to use her sick days or file for disability. Maloney is the first woman to have a child while in office.

The voices of all these women were cohesively brought together in Hollie McNish’s spoken word poem “Embarassment,” which played near the end of the film. It discussed the stigma against breast-feeding in public compared to the use of sex to sell everything. McNish also echoed the dangers of using formula in impoverished areas, tying the film together.

Weis had many challenges while making Milk. Emotional, physical and natural obstacles taxed her and the film crew. Weis described waiting with mothers during labor and even getting caught in the Philippines in the middle of a typhoon.

Weis’ close look at the lives of families not only sheds light on long-standing issues, but unites voices across the world and calls for change.

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