Vaccination Vacation

a-child-in-iron-lungBack when I was studying German in college, I spent a summer working as a waitress in southern Germany.   Hooked up via a college work exchange program,  I worked in a government-run resort in the Black Forest for families whose children had recently overcome cancer.  The children regularly visited with in-house medical staff who helped them with swimming exercises and other forms of physical rehabilitation. For a nominal fee, German families could stay at the resort for a month, enjoying family activities like horseback riding, hiking, and puppet shows.

The theory behind these kinds of resorts is that a family should be able to relax and recuperate together after experiencing the kind of tremendous stress brought about by having a child stricken with life-threatening illnesses like cancer.  Because this is how the Europeans roll.  By working at one of these facilities, I had a firsthand opportunity to witness the benefits of socialized medicine, which is, of course,  vastly different from the alarmist visions of third-rate care in primitive facilities that keep Americans from wholeheartedly jumping on the universal healthcare bandwagon.  On the contrary, I witnessed many loving families, grateful for the opportunity to spend time with their sweet, recuperating children in a storybook environment.  Many of the children were still bald from chemotherapy treatments, but were happily playing with other bald children who were simply happy to be alive.  I will never forget being surrounded one afternoon by a group of bald little girls, aged maybe from three to seven years, who were picking flowers and stuffing them into my hair and dress while singing the German alphabet and other childhood songs.

One day, while working in the kitchen, I started experiencing sudden stomach pain in waves.  It could have been anything, but after an hour or so in which the pain hadn’t subsided, the manager sent me downstairs to be examined by a German doctor, who saw me immediately, for no cost, and prescribed a couple of medications, also at no cost (because that’s how the Europeans roll).  One was a type of anti-spasmodic, to be taken for a few days, and the other was a chamomile tincture. The doctor explained that I was to mix forty drops of the tincture in a glass of water and drink it every couple of hours until the bottle was gone.

Whatever was in the prescription, it was probably effective, since the stomach pains stopped after a day. But what I found truly remarkable about the episode was the fact that I had been simultaneously prescribed a pharmaceutical medicine as well as an herbal medicine.  This would never happen in the U.S.  Here, we are ideologically split into two distinct camps: one that believes pharmaceutical medicines are effective whereas all herbal remedies are unregulated snake oil potions consumed by uneducated hippies, and the other, which endorses all-natural alternative medicines for every malady while suspecting all pharmaceutical products of being slow poisons peddled by Big Companies for whom profit is the only incentive.

There is probably some truth on both sides. On the one hand, many natural remedies are effective without causing as many side effects as harsher prescriptions, but are unlikely to be properly explored by our pharmaceutical and medical system because there isn’t enough profit potential to justify the costs of research and regulation. On the other hand, decades of research by top scientists have led to the development of fantastically powerful drugs that have saved millions and millions of lives. We have largely eradicated many diseases that used to decimate our populations, whether or not that has led to huge profits for pharmaceutical companies, and ignoring the past century of medical advancement is reckless, at best.

When it comes to our health, I think it makes sense to make rational choices, taking only calculated risks, based on the best information and tools we have available. For example, after I gave birth to my daughter, our pediatrician advised me not to take her into public for several months so she would not be exposed to germs. However, I believe in the Hygiene Hypothesis, which is the theory that not exposing ourselves to the typical germs in our environment has lead to weakened immune systems, a higher incidence of allergies and immune-system diseases (  Research has shown that kids who grow up with family pets, for instance, have fewer allergies and are less likely to suffer from asthma because the animals track in small amounts of dirt and pollen from the environment, exposing the children to these germs and allowing the kids’ immune systems to develop resistance to them.  (Check out this nifty slide show from WebMD for more on this topic:

In fact, we’ve become so clean, we are having to reintroduce germs into our diets for normal digestive functioning. We use the term “probiotics” for the critters in our kefir and yogurt because it has a much friendlier ring than “germs,” but it’s ultimately the same thing. So, ignoring the advice about isolating my baby and demanding everyone slather themselves in hand sanitizer before holding her. I took my daughter into public immediately, let her play in the grass, let her cuddle with the family cats, and otherwise did not become obsessive about “normal” germs.  I figured that since she was breastfed, she should have a healthier immune system to begin with, and… knock on wood… she did not get sick *once* during her entire first year, and has suffered only one minor cold for a couple of days at 17 months.

Every parent needs to make these kinds of decisions themselves, of course, but I personally tend to support more relaxed, less sanitized methods of parenting.  I breastfed, insisted on skin-on-skin contact after birth, made my own baby food (which often included cinnamon, which alarmed many other parents but was absolutely fine), and brought my baby into contact with friendly pets and other people immediately.  These are the kinds of germs that humans have been in contact with for hundreds of thousands of years, and I believe we evolved to not only handle them, but also benefit from exposure to them.

However, when you move beyond normal, everyday germs into the major diseases, you fall into a class of truly dangerous maladies that are beyond what our immune systems evolved to handle. These killers, such as polio, typhoid, and tetanus, used to absolutely decimate human populations. A couple hundred years ago, you could expect HALF of your children to die before growing up.  In fact, a lot of people have the misguided impression that in medieval times, most people died before forty, as though that was our natural lifespan. But that actually represents the mathematical average after accounting for all the babies that died before the age of five, and the epidemics that wiped out huge swaths of the population–such as the Bubonic plague, which killed every third person in Europe, back in the day.

We have been fortunate enough to move beyond what used to be the normal reality of so many babies dying prematurely and childhood epidemics crippling generations, but our grandparents were not. They lived in terror, for example, of their children dying of or being paralyzed forever by polio, for which there was no cure. Many photos from the 30’s and 40’s show the heartbreaking reality of once-happy children encased in giant iron lungs, because they could no longer breathe on their own.  The nightmare finally came to an end after the development and distribution of the polio vaccine in the 1950’s.  By 1961, only 161 cases were recorded in the United States, and the disease was entirely eradicated in the US by 1997.  Now, it only exists in a few developing countries where polio vaccination isn’t widely available. (

We have made such incredible progress in demolishing these diseases that it is easy to feel a psychological distance from their true horrors. Smallpox, for example, killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone. That is staggering…. it is more than eighty times the number of people killed in concentration camps, more than eight times the number of people who died in World War II, and more than 168 times the number of people who died on 9/11.  Or, put another way, it is five times the number of active Twitter users in 2012.  And we are only accounting for smallpox here, which used to kill 80% of the infants who contracted it.

Bearing those kinds of horrible death counts in mind, we also need to consider that we have not magically transformed into Disease-Resistant Superbeings in the 21st century. Far from it… we are the same animals we have always been, only now we are fortunate enough to have access to the incredible medical and scientific breakthroughs made in the past hundred years or so.  If we start to strip these vaccinations away, we will experience the nightmarish resurgence of the same agonizing diseases.

This is why, though I support many methods of natural parenting, I am compelled to speak out against the anti-vaccination movement.  I realize this is an emotional issue for many people, and that taking a strong stance will ruffle a lot of feathers, but I am happy to make some people angry if it means that someone, somewhere, will think twice about not vaccinating their child and some day NOT have to lower the coffin of their beloved child who suffered horribly then died of a completely preventable disease.

People who don’t want to vaccinate their children have good intentions. They love their children very, very much and have heard a great number of tragic anecdotes about babies who had problems after being vaccinated.  They are terrified after hearing about the supposed links between autism and vaccinations, and want to keep their children safe.  Some have experienced the heartbreaking loss of their child and need to understand why such a horrible thing happened, looking for answers wherever they can find them.  I feel tremendous sympathy for these parents and know they are trying to make the best choices in a frightening situation.

But refusing vaccinations is not the answer. Autism rates are on the rise, but we do not know why, and the possibility of vaccinations causing autism has been thoroughly investigated and found to be untrue. Jenny McCarthy, for instance, is one well-known celebrity who became an outspoken anti-vaccination activist after her child was diagnosed with autism,  She has influenced many people.  Now, I like Jenny McCarthy.  Her books on pregnancy made a very fun read and a welcome change from the tsk-tsk sternness of such classics as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and other such Puritanical manifestos. But people should bear in mind that she is an entertainer, a mother who is sad that her child is suffering, and not a medical expert with any sort of education or experience that would make her a reasonable authority on such issues.

It’s true that your baby might become feverish and feel crappy after receiving a round of immunizations. This is normal and expected, just like our arm tends to get stiff and sore after a tetanus shot. It is also true that an infant will occasionally have a severe reaction to a vaccine, but this is very, very rare and the risks of a bad reaction are much, much lower than the risks posed by the many infectious diseases that used to kill so many babies in our country, and that still do in developing countries without universal access to vaccinations.

So please, gentle readers, do your research thoroughly before choosing to refuse vaccinations and leaving your child at risk for the many horrendous diseases that can kill them. Do not only listen to anti-vaccination advocates or read websites that claim there is a giant medical conspiracy to infect our children with autism.  Equip yourselves with a true arsenal of information before making a huge decision like this.

Here are a few sites I urge you to read, in order to balance your view against the anti-vaccination movement:

Choosing to use a gentle natural remedy instead of a pharmaceutical drug is a great choice when our bodies are equipped to handle the problem. Chamomile tea instead of Ambien is wonderful. Yoga and meditation instead of Valium is a good trade. A healthy diet is always better than relying on Lipitor, if it does the trick.  But when it comes to life-threatening diseases that can cripple or kill even healthy babies, vaccinations are the safe choice.

Be happy, and stay safe.


10 Breastfeeding Tips for Newbies

Lately, my blog posts have centered around giving advice to first-time mothers.  Maybe this is because my second pregnancy is reminding me how terrified I was the first time around… of the bizarre sensations occurring all over my body, the agonizingly slow creep toward delivery day (which one mom described so nicely as “knowing about a car accident nine months in advance”), and the endless panic about being ready for when the baby comes.

One thing I felt certain about, however, was that I was going to exclusively breastfeed my baby instead of using formula. Here is my rationale:

Scientists have been studying the effects of diet for quite some time now, yet they keep changing their minds and don’t have consensus on a wide variety of nutritional debates. Are eggs good for us? For ages, they were telling us eggs gave you high cholesterol and that we need to stay away from them, but now they are reporting no link between egg consumption and cholesterol issues. I’m old enough to remember the 1980’s nutritional mentality in which fat, of any kind, was the devil and you were actually advised by the American Heart Association to eat eleven servings of carbohydrates a day. I remember my mother going on diets where she had to eat less than ten fat grams a day, but could eat as many Snackwell fat-free cookies, packed full of high-fructose corn syrup, she wanted.

LunchtimeYet a decade later, carbohydrates suddenly became the devil and we were all supposed to toss the very pasta and potatoes the experts were cramming down our throats a few years earlier. One day, meat consumption gives us heart attacks, and the next, we are all in a panic to get enough protein. According to some experts, milk does a body good, but others insist we should be drinking soy or rice milk because dairy is just awful… and then we hear about how soy is messing up our hormone levels with phyto-estrogens and our rice supplies are contaminated with arsenic.  Every day we are learning about new dangers in foods, or alternatively, about beneficial compounds in once-reviled products that they didn’t know about until some recent study came out.

The food experts are doing their best, I’m sure, but it’s difficult to know how a diet affects people after decades and decades of consumption, and how to separate out all the genetics and lifestyle variables that could affect research outcomes. It just isn’t ethical to raise two babies in a lab, and make everything they eat and do the same except one variable, then watch what happens after fifty years. That’s part of what makes studying humans so difficult, whether it be research about behavior, diet, the human body or brain.

Since scientists keep changing their minds about what we should eat, I figure it’s generally safer to eat the foods we have been eating for thousands of years than to rely on a collection of nutrients that represent scientists’ current best guess of what’s good for us. Consequently, it makes sense to feed babies breast milk, because that’s what babies evolved to eat and it may be good for them for reasons we don’t understand yet. We know that breastfed babies have fewer infections and tend to suffer from lower obesity rates, for example, which has to do with the antibodies they get from their mother’s milk which no formula can currently replicate. I tend to believe that eating real, less-processed food is better for us in general and the ultimate natural human food is breast milk, after all.

Gentle readers, please do not think that because I believe breast milk is best that I think formula leads to unhealthy babies or represents bad parenting.  I also think growing your own organic vegetables is the ideal way to eat, but that is not always feasible!  Some women have problems producing enough breast milk. Exclusive breastfeeding also takes a LOT of time and energy, and it is probably not possible for busy working women without much maternity leave (I also think the lack of proper maternity leave in this country is appalling, but that’s a topic for another time).  Whole generations of healthy children have grown up on formula, since breastfeeding went out of vogue for a time, so formula will obviously do a sufficient job of nourishing children, even if it isn’t the ideal.

In fact, I was shocked when my mother informed me that when I was a couple weeks old, the doctors thought I was getting too “fat” on formula, so they advised her to feed me nothing but cow’s milk with a dropper-full of vitamins until I was six months old. Can you imagine? That would be considered pediatric lunacy these days, yet I turned out fine and wasn’t even a particularly sickly infant.  Good thing I wasn’t lactose-intolerant. In those days, they had me in the nursery overnight and stuck a bottle of formula in my mouth before my mother even got a chance to hold me. It was a different time.

That being said, I strongly urge new moms to give breastfeeding a good effort and to at least supplement formula feeding with breastfeeding if exclusive breastfeeding is not possible for you, so that your baby will receive the wonderful immunity and bonding benefits that breast milk offers. I also would like to share a few tips that could be very helpful to a nursing newbie:

1.  Try to read a book and/or take a class on breastfeeding while you are pregnant.  Because women have been breastfeeding infants for centuries, it feels like it should just come naturally–be instinctive–but it actually takes some practice. If the baby doesn’t latch properly, it can really hurt your nipples and keep the baby from getting enough milk. Learning how to “unlatch” the baby and get him or her to latch properly can make all the difference. Many hospitals now have experts who will help make sure the baby is latching properly and will show you a variety of useful holds to make it easier. Use this resource.

2.   For the first couple days after delivery, you will produce colostrum, a thick milky fluid that is packed with fantastic health benefits for your baby but only comes out a few drops at a time. I was terrified that my baby wasn’t getting enough to eat, but this is normal and your milk should come in after a few days. It’s okay for your baby’s weight to drop a little after those first few days. It goes back up after your milk comes in.

3.  After a few days of breastfeeding, it really started to hurt. My nipples scabbed over and it stung when the baby tried to eat. After months of proudly telling everyone that I planned to breastfeed, I actually began to have moments of doubt.  I thought… I get it. I get why all those women said breastfeeding was impossible. I’m exhausted, the baby keeps crying like she’s still hungry, I’m scared that she’s not getting enough to eat and it feels like someone is holding a lighter to my titties. What if my nipples get infected and I have to stop? I don’t know how much longer I can stand it…

If we still lived in an era where doctors pushed formula feeding, I might have even given up at that point. But after another day or so, my nipples seemed to “toughen up” and it stopped hurting. Everything got better from that point on. So, don’t give up if this happens to you, because it was only temporary. They also have some really nice nipple balms out that help sooth everything and are safe for the baby. I like Lansinoh. It also doubles as a spectacular lip balm that lasts forever, by the way.

4.  The hormones that breastfeeding produces also causes uterine contractions for several days, which feel like cramps… not the most pleasant sensation after delivering a baby. It’s uncomfortable at first, but is actually a very healthy thing. Your uterus has expanded a huge amount during pregnancy, which why your belly doesn’t snap back into skinny-jean flatness immediately and why most women still look pregnant for a while after giving birth. The uterine contractions help shrink your uterus back to normal size. They also help slow your postpartum blood loss. meaning you won’t be as depleted after delivery, which is another great benefit. It is also temporary.

5.  Breastfeeding floods your body with oxytocin, which is a “feel good” hormone that helps you bond with your baby. You know your hormones go berserk when you are pregnant, right? They also go berserk after delivery for many months before stabilizing.  Many women suffer from postpartum depression, on top of being exhausted from taking care of a newborn. Flooding your body with a feel-good hormone helps relax you, balance your moods, and breastfeeding mothers have a lower incidence of postpartum depression.

6.  Breastfed babies tend to be much thinner than formula-fed babies. That can be very alarming, because all of your maternal instincts want to make certain your baby is getting enough to eat. I was constantly fretting at first about my baby being so petite and considered supplementing her diet with formula “just to be sure.” She was below the 5th percentile of weight! Luckily, my pediatrician assured me that she appeared quite healthy despite being smaller than average. It didn’t stop me from fretting entirely, but as long as your baby is alert and your pediatrician isn’t concerned, he or she is probably just fine. Now my baby is 17 months old, normal size, and an incredibly healthy child (knock on wood).

7.  You do not need to give your infant water in addition to breastfeeding. This was counter-intuitive for me… don’t all animals need water? But your breast milk naturally contains the proper ratio of water, and adding water to your baby’s diet can actually be dangerous, except under special circumstances such as when your baby has been in the heat and has been sweating a lot (which you should probably avoid anyway). My aunts also kept telling me that babies need extra water, so I triple-checked with the experts to be sure it isn’t the case. It isn’t.

8.  You don’t need to “pump and dump.” Many other moms advised me that if I wanted to celebrate the New Year with a few glasses of champagne, for example, I just needed to pump my breast milk out afterwards, which would supposedly clear the alcohol out of the milk.  This is a myth.

Your kidneys clear alcohol out of your system after a certain period of time. You don’t need to dump your breast milk, just like you don’t need to dump your blood and get a transfusion after drinking too much. You need to wait a while after having a couple drinks before nursing your baby, that is all.  You don’t need to wait very long after one drink, because the percentage your baby gets is very dilute–in fact, some studies show that a beer, especially a dark beer, helps increase your blood supply (I said *ONE.* Don’t go nuts).

A good rule of thumb is: if you feel buzzed, you need to wait for that to clear up before you feed your baby, not only because your blood alcohol percentage is probably too high, but also because your balance and coordination are impaired.

9.  It’s a good idea to get a breast pump and try to build a small back supply of milk in your fridge, for several reasons.  First, it’s great to have an emergency supply on hand in case your baby is hungry and you aren’t in a good situation to breast feed at that moment. Second, if you have a little back supply this allows you a little freedom to attend an event or something without worrying about your baby getting dinner. Maybe your husband wants to be able to feed the baby sometimes and can use a bottle of your milk, or maybe, like in #8, you want to have a couple glasses of champagne on New Year’s Eve and be able to give your baby fresh milk for several hours while your body neutralizes the hooch. It’s always good to have options.

Finally, your body runs on a supply-and-demand system of breast milk creation. So if you pump in addition to nursing your baby, you are encouraging your body to keep up its milk supply, which gives you great peace of mind when your baby is relying on you for food. One caveat though–pumping is a skill unto itself and some women are not able to pump more than an ounce or two at a time. That does not necessarily mean that your baby is only getting an ounce or two when nursing.  Babies are better than machines at getting milk.

10.  One last tip…  once upon a time, I did not understand why women breastfed in public, when it seemed so much easier to just do before leaving the house. After having done it, however, I completely understand. Breastfeeding takes a lot of time. Babies eat ten or more times a day, sometimes nursing for about forty-five minutes or so an episode. Breast milk also digests quickly, so when your baby is hungry, your baby is hungry NOW. This all means that if mothers only nursed their babies at home, they would effectively be under house arrest for months on end.

Our discomfort with public breastfeeding is a culturally-conditioned attitude, and I think a tragic one. I think it’s sad that women can be half-naked on billboards, peddling beer with 20-foot cleavage for all to see, yet so many of us are made uncomfortable by the sight of a loving mother nourishing her baby, which is why we have breasts in the first place. Partly, it’s because we are just not used to it, so hopefully that will change in time. From talking to mothers from many different countries, I’ve learned that this attitude is not universal. Even in the Middle East, where women have to dress much more modestly in public, a breastfeeding mother is considered socially acceptable.

I never had the chutzpah to publicly whip out my boob and nurse my baby, though I support women with the guts to do just that. It felt too awkward to me, but luckily, there are ways around this. You can get special nursing slings that hold your baby to your body and keep everything private. You can even throw a light scarf over your shoulder that will cover everything up (though my daughter did not like it and would frequently try to yank the scarf away). Places like malls and amusement parks often have nursing rooms available where you can relax in private.

It is now illegal, at least in California, to throw a woman out of a public establishment for breastfeeding, so don’t let yourself get jerked around by some uptight employee. In the end, it is flat-out rude and wrong to harass some poor woman who is just trying to feed her infant, so don’t allow yourself to be bullied by some ignorant pervert who is more comfortable staring at silicone-injected fetishes than seeing a woman care for her baby. The culture will never change until we stop allowing ourselves to feel ashamed for doing what we need to do.

I hope some of these tips will be helpful and encouraging for mothers who want to breastfeed. It can be tricky at first, but wonderful once you get the hang of it.  There are a wealth of experts and resources available to answer any questions. I highly recommend the website to help ease your concerns, clear up any confusion, and teach you techniques for nursing and pumping.