A Tale of Two Nursing Mothers

By Chanda Chevannes, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

When my husband, Nathan, and I first announced that we were expecting a baby, we quickly received a lot of unsolicited advice — advice we usually ignored. But we did hear at least one good idea: Don’t change your life to fit your baby; fit your baby into your life.

As documentary filmmakers, we immediately saw the wisdom in this suggestion. Which is why, at seven o’clock one Saturday night in July 2008, I found myself, with my mother and my three-month-old baby, in the tiny, wood-paneled village hall of Congerville (population 502), in central Illinois. I was there with my small Canadian film crew to shoot the night’s events for my new documentary, Living Downstream. The subject of the film, acclaimed ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, was preparing to give a public speech. And we were preparing to shoot it.


Sandra’s topic — the links between synthetic chemicals and human health—was sure to challenge many of her audience members, including local farmers and their families. But, maybe because Sandra had grown up nearby, the mood was welcoming. A patchwork quilt hung on the wall behind the podium where Sandra would speak. Smells wafted from Crock Pots, casserole dishes, and serving platters brought by the local residents for the evening’s potluck. Rows of chairs filled the room, and all those chairs were filling with people who were strangers to me. Except for two familiar faces in the back row: my mother and my daughter, Hannah.

This is where my personal life met my public life: my milk — Hannah’s milk — was about to be used by Sandra as her sole visual aid of the evening. She was planning to hold the jar up for all to see. First, she would list off the amazing benefits of breast milk. Then she would pass the jar through the room and invite audience members to contemplate it. And then the reveal: Sandra would go on to say that breast milk is the most contaminated human food on the planet. Over two hundred chemicals have the ability to trespass into breast milk, including toilet deodorizers, mothproofing agents, and dry cleaning fluids. Organochlorines such as dioxins, DDT, and PCBs also make regular appearances in our milk. So do farm chemicals.

And the revelation of this evidence would lead Sandra to the main points of her lecture: that inherently toxic chemicals find their way into the most intimate parts of our lives, even our milk. That our environment is within us. That what we love, we must protect.

Mammal to Mammal

As a new mother, I was already sold on the benefits of breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that infants be breastfed exclusively for the first six months, and then non-exclusively until at least the age of two. We know that babies who are breastfed have better immune systems, better hearing and eyesight, and higher IQs. They respond better to vaccinations, are less prone to infections, and have fewer allergies. We also know that breastfeeding means busy working mothers don’t have to waste time mixing (or money buying) formula. Breastfeeding seemed like a really good idea to me.

I had chosen to breastfeed Hannah for all of these compelling reasons. But what began as the logical choice became a deeply emotional activity. Nursing my daughter was a bonding experience. I could feel myself getting closer to her with each feeding. As I held her close to me, and watched her drink the milk I produced for her, a deep feeling grew inside of me. More than anything, I wanted to protect her.

As a filmmaker working on a scientific film, I also knew some worrisome facts about breast milk. For example, in an ongoing study, researchers at the University of Montreal have discovered that, compared to their male counterparts, female beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River have a lower burden of organochlorine chemicals in their tissues. What sounds like good news is not. According to the investigators, this finding is “best explained through massive transfer to the newborn during lactation, resulting in juvenile [organochlorine chemical] concentrations equal to or higher than in adult males."

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