How I Breastfed My Babies and Saved the World
From: New Beginnings, Vol. 29 No. 4, 2009, pp. 42-43
I never expected to be a superhero. I never thought that nursing my babies could have such far-reaching effects. Like most new mothers, I decided to breastfeed for quite mundane reasons. I wanted my children to be as healthy as possible, and I had heard that both mothers and babies who did not breastfeed were at higher risk for many illnesses and conditions. I have always been into doing things as naturally as possible, and breastfeeding certainly fell into that category.
However, it came as quite a surprise to learn that by breastfeeding my babies I was also contributing to a cleaner, greener planet. In the new edition of her book, The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer praises women for producing "the most ecological food product in the world." For example, from producer to consumer, human milk needs the fewest food miles. Breastfeeding is not only nutritionally correct, it's also environmentally ethical. (1)
There are many more ways in which breastfeeding contributes to the ecology of our planet. It's a natural, renewable resource and is all the baby needs for the first six months of life.
A woman starts to produce colostrum quite early in her pregnancy. Her baby receives this concentrated milk, which is rich in immune factors, as soon as he is born. During the next couple of weeks, the colostrum slowly changes into mature milk and productivity increases to meet the baby's needs. Continued milk production depends on milk removal—the more her baby nurses, the more milk the mother will produce. Breastmilk requires no resources for packaging, shipping, or disposal. The manufacture of artificial formula involves the need for huge dairy farms, milking machines, cattle feed, manure disposal, formula factories, packaging, and shipping, with its attendant costs. "If every baby in the USA is bottle-fed, almost 86,000 tons of tin plate are used up in the required 550 million discarded babymilk tins." (2)
Precious energy is wasted producing artificial baby milk and related products. Mothers do not need special foods in order to produce milk for their babies. Human milk is ready to serve from the original containers. Breastfeeding does not require heating, cooling, or sterilizing.
"Although energy required to boil water and sterilize bottles and nipples can readily be accessed in industrialized countries, it more often than not comes from polluting nuclear or power generating stations. In poor countries women often spend hours every day collecting scarce firewood. A bottle fed baby needs about 1 litre of boiled water to prepare feeds and 2 litres to sterilize the bottles and nipples. This requires more than half a kilo of precious firewood per day." (3)
When a mother breastfeeds, no land needs to be deforested for pasture or crop production. Dairy farms require arable land to raise feed as well as space for the cows themselves.
"The production of artificial baby milks requires hundreds of millions of lactating cows. In India alone, to replace breastmilk, 135 million lactating cows would be needed. In Mexico, to produce 1 kilogram of baby milk would require 12.5 square metres of cleared land." (3)
Breastfeeding does not create pollution as does the manufacturing of human milk substitutes, bottles, teats, and cans. Think about the resources needed to make the glass and plastic bottles and silicone teats, very little of which is recycled, and the resulting pollution.
"Phthalates, a chemical used in the production of plastic, has been identified in all 15 brands of infant formulas, tested by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Great Britain. Nine of the brands tested had levels high enough to result in reduced sperm counts in rats." (3)
Breastfeeding helps space babies by suppressing fertility in the mother.
"Breastfeeding reduces fertility rates and prevents more births than all other forms of birth control combined. In Africa breastfeeding prevents an average of 4 births per woman. In Bangladesh, breastfeeding prevents about 6.5 births per woman. Chilean women, exclusively breastfeeding for six months, reported no pregnancies while of those bottle fed, 72 per cent became pregnant." (3)
Breastfeeding women rarely menstruate while their babies are exclusively breastfeeding. Not only is there money saved on sanitary products and their disposal, but there is a considerable impact on the environment.
"In the UK, each menstruating woman uses between 286 and 358 towels or tampons per year, 98% of which are flushed down the toilet. Fifty-two per cent of these are released untreated into the sea where tampons require 6 months to biodegrade, sanitary towels need longer. The plastic liners on sanitary towels will not biodegrade and remain as a pollutant." (2)
Breastfeed, because it is not nice to fool Mother Nature.
(1) Palmer, G. The Politics of Breastfeeding, 3rd edition: Pinter & Martin Ltd, July 25, 2009. http://store.llli.org/public/product/496
(2) Radford, A. Baby Milk Action. "The Ecological Impact of Bottle Feeding" http://www.reducepackaging.com/impact-bottlefeeding.html
(3) INFACT Canada, Breastmilk: the perfect renewable resource http://www.infactcanada.ca/ren_res.htm
(4) LLL USA, Human Milk is Green, Ecologically Speaking... http://www.lllusa.org/green.php
[This article was edited for the web, to correct one of the URLs in the References section -ed]