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During World Breastfeeding Week 2019, I have been reflecting on how there is a whole heck of a lot of misinformation being spread around the internet about breastfeeding in recent years. I have noticed a trend of framing breastfeeding parents, advocates, and even clinicians as scientifically illiterate, uneducated, and anti-vaccinationist. As a lifelong philosophical skeptic and lover of science, you can imagine my dismay! Particularly stinging are implications that research hailing from the “soft sciences,” psychology and anthropology (a.k.a. my Minor and Major), isn’t “real” science, because they don’t usually involve randomized, controlled trials. 🙄
Part of the problem, here, is that breastfeeding is a reeeally under-funded area of research, so there are very few researchers doing it relative to, say, cancer research, or even erectile dysfunction. (← Click if you need a good crylaugh.) And since researchers are paid to teach and do research, there isn’t much time left for communicating their science to the public. So, it becomes relatively easy for charlatans to mislead folks by using “sciencey”-sounding language and posting cherry-picked links to scientific papers.
So how can non-scientists who love science be sure that you’re sharing information from respected experts?
Well, first and foremost, you can be scientifically literate without being a scientist. This means developing your critical thinking skills and finely calibrating your baloney detector. I’ll be diving deep into that topic in a future post. In the meantime, I have a couple of quick and dirty tricks I can share right now.
When evaluating a scientist: First, find their institutional website, and make sure they’re affiliated with a respected university, non-profit, or government health institution.
Then, find their CV (academic resume) and look for a graduate degree in a relevant area of study, and a history of publications in this area. This is important because, on occasion, I will notice researchers jumping in from outside a relevant area (thinking they’re providing a “fresh new take,” I imagine), and without first seeking input from experienced researchers. Predictably, their study design often reflects their lack of comprehensive background on this topic. You see, breastfeeding is a complex system of behaviors, nutrition, information exchange, and immune support involving multiple organ systems in at least two humans, so naturally breastfeeding researchers hail from many fields: public health, biomedicine, biology, anthropology (biological, cultural, and increasingly biocultural), psychology, immunology, nutrition, and in some cases even fluid dynamics! Without adequate background and collaboration, the science will be of poor quality.
When evaluating clinicians: In U.S. culture, we often tend to over-estimate the knowledge level that physicians and nurses have in a specialized area, without considering whether they have had any targeted training in that area beyond the 6-week rotation they had in med school. That is to say, the fact that someone went to school for a long time doesn’t make them an expert in everything health-related. Scientific researchers who specialize in infant feeding have long expressed concern that the breastfeeding-specific education that physicians get is inadequate–and the evidence suggests that this is even so for pediatricians, who are on the front lines of breastfeeding medicine in the U.S.
So, how do you know if a clinician is likely to give good info? A great thing to look for when reading the publications and content of clinicians who are active on Twitter is to look for the “IBCLC” certification — that means they are a board certified lactation expert, which is the highest level of lactation-specific training in this field that exists–and yes, even more training than pediatricians get. A few pediatricians, however, do have this distinction, as well as a few anthropologists, such as Drs. Aunchalee Palmquist and Cecilia Tomori, listed above.
Six Breastfeeding Scientists to Follow for Science-Minded Parents
How do we make sure that we’re helping to disseminate reliable information from experts who aren’t secretly anti-vax or on the payroll of some industry with a vested interest in research results? By following and retweeting dope scientists, of course!
As my first post for World Breastfeeding Week, I curated this little list of who to follow for only the most high quality breastfeeding science, tweeted and blogged and posted by actual scientists! I would characterize all of these individuals as having a cross-discipline knowledge base, which is truly what attaining a truly comprehensive and nuanced understanding of breastfeeding requires. I chose people with degrees in science or medicine, and who are active on Twitter with the general public in mind.
In no particular order:
1. Allison Stuebe, MD, MSc, FACOG
Training: Obstetrician, with a Masters in Epidemiology
Institutional affiliations: University of North Carolina, President-elect of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, Member of the Breastfeeding Expert Working Group for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and Board member of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. Whew!
Research topics: Dr. Stuebe is a very prolific researcher in various aspects of breastfeeding.
Why you should follow her: Dr. Stuebe is just really cool, and is as knowledgeable as her CV suggests without making the information seem esoteric. She knows the anthropological and psychological research on breastfeeding really well, and often does mixed-methods research. If you want comprehensive, nuanced information from someone with a background in medicine, Steube is your doc!
Where to find Dr. Stuebe:
Academic page/CV: https://sph.unc.edu/adv_profile/alison-stuebe-md/
2. Amy Brown, Ph.D., M.Sc.
Training: Psychology, social research methods
Institutional affiliations: Swansea University, UK.
Research topics: Psychology of maternal and infant health, infant sleep, and postnatal depression.
Why you should follow her: Professor Brown is as much of an expert as you will find in the cultural and structural forces that affect the ability to breastfeed and the media narratives surrounding it. She often writes articles for public consumption, and is a really important voice in these conversations.
3. Ifeyinwa Asiodu, R.N., Ph.D., M.S., IBCLC
Institutional affiliations: USC, UCSF, University of Illinois at Chicago
Research topics: Intersectional study of breastfeeding in African-American communities and improving health equity for women in children in African-American communities.
Why you should follow her: She doesn’t shy away from the politics of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is not just an important public health issue but an access issue; this is one reason that breastfeeding is such an emotionally charged and contentious topic. It is also under-recognized in public discourse as an issue that is on the continuum of reproductive rights, and affects disadvantaged communities similarly. Asiodu is the complete package: no one can explain these things to you better than someone who lives and works in these communities, is passionate about sharing this science, and has the credentials to boot.
Where to find Dr. Asiodu:
4. Katie Hinde, Ph.D.
Training: Biological anthropologist
Institutional affiliations: Harvard, ASU
Research topics: Dr. Hinde is the Director of the Comparative Lactation Lab at ASU. She is super nerdy about mammals and her research focuses on how the concentration of certain components in milk (like cortisol or sugar) affect development and behavior in primates.
Why you should follow her: Dr. Hinde runs one of the most widely successful science communication programs that runs all through march every year on Twitter, March Mammal Madness. It’s a hugely popular thing, and very entertaining! Dr. Hinde is very funny, and really has a gift for communication and making science relatable.
Where to find Dr. Hinde:
5. Meghan Azad, Ph.D., M.Sc.
Training: Biochemist, M.Sc. in Epidemiology
Institutional affiliations: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of Alberta, University of Manitoba, Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, co-Director of the Manitoba Interdisciplinary Lactation Centre (MILC), Secretary for the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation (ISRHML)
Research topics: How maternal nutrition, infant feeding, and milk composition affect long-term health outcomes such as asthma, allergies, obesity and diabetes. She is the co-lead investigator for the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study, one of the largest, most high-quality studies on the health effects breastfeeding.
Why you should follow her: If her credentials and the ongoing release of results from the CHILD study aren’t enough, follow her for the infographics she often posts!
Where to find her:
6. Melissa Bartick, M.D., M.Sc., FABM
Training: Physician, M.Sc. in Health and Medical Sciences
Institutional affiliations: UC Berkley, UCSF, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Health Alliance, Fellow at Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
Research topics: Breastfeeding and safe infant sleep as public health issues. Another very prolific researcher!
Why you should follow her: She is very active on Twitter and has a lot of culture and media savvy, and is not afraid to stick her neck out call and out fellow researchers when their work is not sound. Dr. Bartick is here with your daily serving of realness.
Where to find her:
Scientists also often collaborate in communicating their science. Here are some respected group blogs, labs, and organizations who consistently and actively share high quality science:
The Anthrolactology bloggers — Anthropologists Aunchalee Palmquist, Cecilia Tomori, and E.A. Quinn
Where to read: https://anthrolactology.com
These three anthropologists teamed up recently to produce a book called Breastfeeding: New Anthropological Perspectives. Anthropologists make crucial contributions to breastfeeding research by measuring things that researchers trained in biomedicine or public health often overlook. Their blog translates this important work into digestible form for the public. They’re experts in the current cultural discourses surrounding breastfeeding and unraveling it’s a full complexities. Palmquist and Tomori are both also board certified in lactation medicine.
Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
Baby Sleep Info Source
Why include a sleep lab in this list? Because practitioners commonly fail to inform parents of the realities of infant sleep. The truth is, sleep of a breastfed baby is different, and their behavior is different, and much of the existing research on breastfeeding, infant sleep, and infant behavior, don’t take that fact into account–and it totally changes the research outcomes, and in turn what parents are told about their breastfed baby’s behavior.
…Obviously, this is not a complete list. I asked around for suggestions in case I was missing anyone, and was inundated with clinicians, researchers, and organizations with which I am not familiar. I’ve tucked them away to sort through, and will do more another post like this later! I also would like to spend some time doing some profiles and deep dives with folks who are doing particularly illuminating research.
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