Brazil's breastfeeding shame campaign solves nothing

"I believe the pediatric society had the best of intentions in encouraging mothers to breastfeed and eat healthfully, but its execution was terrible."

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Before I got pregnant with my first child, I joined a weight-loss program to drop 40 pounds to ensure I was at my ideal pre-pregnancy weight. I was very much one of those women who abstained from alcohol and fast food leading up to the time I got pregnant, believing that if my body was free of junk food, I’d have an easier time conceiving. However, all bets were off after I got pregnant—I packed on more than 60 pounds, most of which I attribute to emotional binge-eating due to depression and an unfortunate addiction to doughnuts and hash browns.

I tried to get back to healthy eating after the birth of our son, Isaac. Part of it was because I wanted to lose my baby weight, but the other reason was that I wanted to breastfeed and believed my breast milk would be more nutritious if I ate well. In those bleary-eyed newborn days this was a Herculean task, and one I didn’t always follow through on. I constantly felt under pressure to cook from scratch every day.

I remember the day the public health nurse came to visit me as part of a well-baby follow-up visit, and I had both a chocolate brownie and a slice of pizza sitting on my plate for lunch. She smiled at me kindly. “You don’t have to eat perfectly all the time,” she said, reassuring me that my body would provide exactly what my son needed at each stage of his development.

I think back to this conversation now because Brazil’s Pediatric Society of Rio Grande (SPRS) has launched a campaign that shames breastfeeding mothers about the types of food they eat.

With the headline “Your Child Is What You Eat,” the three ads show nursing mothers with a doughnut, hamburger and soft drinks painted on their breasts. Also, painted on the women’s breasts (in an agency-translated version of the ads, which were originally written in Portuguese) are are the words: “Yours [sic] habits in the first thousand days of gestation can prevent your child from developing serious diseases.”

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The ads have (rightfully) outraged women across the world, not only because they’re insulting, but because of their inaccuracy. La Leche League International’s spokeswoman Diana West spoke with Yahoo Parenting about the campaign. “It promotes the idea that you have to have a perfect diet to breastfeed,” she says, adding that babies are not what their mothers eat.

The latest studies suggest that caffeine, alcohol and certain types of fish should be avoided by nursing mothers—but there is no evidence that burgers or sweet treats will harm your baby.

SPRS created the ads in partnership with the agency Paim as part of their “1000 Days” initiative, with the goal to communicate that a mom’s habits in the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life can prevent early adult-onset diseases and improve kids’ overall health. Brazil has one of the world’s highest childhood obesity rates, with one in three kids classified as overweight.

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In an official response on their Facebook page, SPRS defends the ads and claim they never intended to discourage breastfeeding. Here’s the response (roughly translated):

“The aim of the campaign is to warn mothers about the importance of healthy eating and its reflection in the formation of the baby. About the baseless suggestions that the campaign seeks to discourage breastfeeding, we affirm that the entire history of SPRS shares to value and encourage breastfeeding and spread their vital importance in the healthy development attest our position.”

Not unlike the Fraser Health breastfeeding initiative, I believe the SPRS had the best of intentions in encouraging mothers to breastfeed and eat healthfully, but its execution was terrible. Breastfeeding mothers need to be encouraged, not publicly shamed into believing that what they ate for dinner the night before might negatively affect their baby.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big-city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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