Academic journal article Human Organization

"That's Not the Milk Sharing I'm Doing": Responses to a Pediatrics Article from Women Who Milk Share

Academic journal article Human Organization

"That's Not the Milk Sharing I'm Doing": Responses to a Pediatrics Article from Women Who Milk Share

Article excerpt

Introduction

On September 21, 2013, human milk sharing made the cover of the Sunday edition of the New York Times (Bakalar 2013). The story introduced readers to the heretofore largely underground practice of giving and receiving human milk with the intention of feeding an infant. However, although the story introduced readers to mothers who participated in unremunerated milk sharing, the headline, "Breast Milk Donated or Sold Online is Often Tainted, Study Shows," referred to a study that had recently been published in the journal Pediatrics, the flagship journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The research article (Keim et al. 2013) reported high levels of possibly harmful bacteria in breast milk sold online. Although the researchers were measured in their conclusions and recommendations, suggesting that "the potential risk of milk sharing to infant health needs to be further examined" (Keim 2013:e1233), news coverage about the findings conflated milk selling with milk sharing and used sensationalistic headlines, such as "Sharing Breast Milk May Pose Risks Women Haven't Considered" (Dallas 2015) and "Breast Milk Sharing among Friends, Relatives Likely Increasing, but Still Risky" (Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science 2015). Once the story broke in the Times, it was recounted through several other news outlets and blogs: it went "viral."

These articles and other representations of milk sharing in United States media characterize women who use shared breast milk as "bad mothers" for violating societal guidelines associated with moral motherhood (Carter and Reyes-Foster 2016; Carter, Reyes-Foster, and Rogers 2015). Following the launch of two breast milk sharing websites Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) and Eats on Feets (EoF) (Cassidy 2012), the United States Food and Drug Administration (US FDA 2010) issued an official statement warning against "feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet." Similar warnings were issued by national health agencies in France and Canada. The newspaper articles cite these statements, along with commentary from medical scientists and doctors who oppose milk sharing, portraying mothers who milk share as ignoring evidence-based recommendations and unnecessarily putting their children at risk (Carter and Reyes-Foster 2016). However, we know little about how mothers who participate in milk sharing interpret media portrayals and scientific studies of their own actions or how they responded to the coverage of this particular study.

In this article, we investigate how mothers who milk share responded to the Pediatrics study (Keim et al. 2013) and its representation in the media. This scenario provided a unique opportunity to examine how medical and scientific knowledge about an unsanctioned social practice with significant health implications was interpreted by people who engage in that practice. Although it is likely that few participants read the original publication in Pediatrics, they gained exposure to the study through news reports that sensationalized the findings and blog posts that critiqued the study that circulated on social media. We present results from an online survey and semi-structured interviews conducted with women who milk share in Central Florida about their opinions regarding the study. We explore the ways in which women who participate in peer-to-peer milk sharing interpreted media portrayals of the Pediatrics study, many of which tended to present the practice as risky or naive. These interpretations in turn help us better understand how peer-to-peer milk sharing participants understand both their own particular milk sharing practices and the practice of peer-to-peer milk sharing in general. At the same time, data gleaned from this study can be used to better understand lay engagement with scientific expertise as it is presented in mainstream news media. We explore how this information can better inform both the design of scientific research and the way in which results are conveyed to news sources. …

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