Drawing from the Archives

I haven’t had the time to be creative with blogging since I started teaching high school last fall.  But I recently came across some of my writing from my teens and early 20s back when I did take the time to write, or more accurately, felt the irrepressible, compulsive, life-depends-on-it urge to get my thoughts onto paper, or at least onto floppy disk (3.5″ HDs,  I’m not so old as to have ever had a 5.25″ floppy drive, honest)!  In an effort to save these pre-blogging bits of writing from the depths of time and to liven up this present blog, I will post a few offerings in their own posts.

When we move on to whatever format replaces blogging, I hope this will make it easier to port more of my writings with me.  If we end up in a post-electricity and post-internet world, then this will be useless, but until then, enjoy!  First up, a bit of a travelogue.  If that goes over well, I may post the more personal stuff!

How to Want to Eat your Veggies

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A couple recent pieces in the New York Times have people talking about why we don’t eat our vegetables, despite reams of evidence about how good they are for us. One of my favorite bloggers, Crunchy Domestic Goddess blogged her thoughts here: http://crunchydomesticgoddess.com/2010/10/19/americans-still-arent-eating-their-veggies/ and the original articles are Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries and Even Benefits Don’t Tempt Us to Vegetables.

Now there are all sorts of “push” solutions involving more education and more convenience to vegetables – to the point of literally putting them in convenience machines, but I’m not sure that in the storied past when everyone did eat their vegetables that it was simply a matter of being more educated about vegetables and that vegetables were more convenient in the past. What could be more convenient than all the pre-packaged solutions we have now? How could we have known more about the health benefits in the past and just forgotten what we knew and ignored the newer information as more and more reasons to eat enough vegetables are found? Can we find some “pull” solutions where we actually are intrinsically motivated to eat our vegetables and don’t just do it because we manage to muster the willpower to make ourselves do it?

What are the root causes, then, if not ignorance and some inherent inconvenience of vegetables? My theories? We are lacking:

  • cheaper vegetables
  • tastier vegetables
  • more time in our lives to grow, prepare and enjoy our vegetables!

Cheaper Vegetables

#1 Economics have a strong sway over us – our food budget would tilt more towards vegetables if they weren’t competing with heavily subsidized commodity products like corn and wheat and all the processed foods made therefrom.
#2 Growing our own vegetables can be cheaper than buying from a store, but here’s an area where a little education can help, and access to materials… and time!

Tastier Vegetables

#1 Organic, local, homegrown, healthy soils, etc, etc. make for healthier, tastier vegetables – it’s no surprise people are not rushing to eat lettuce shipped from 3000 miles away
#2 And here’s what really inspired me to write my thoughts down on the vegetable conundrum – I blame the low-fat diets of the last 30 years for reducing vegetables to something boring and bland. Sure you can try to spice them up, but you can tire of that, too. What’s really satisfies and appeals to your tastebuds again and again is fat – a nice pat of butter on top of your beans, bacon with your brussel sprouts, root vegetables tossed in olive oil and roasted. There’s a yummy video over on the 180 Degree Health blog about butter-poached carrots that I’m dying to try!

More Time in our Lives

Oh, this would solve so many of our problems in this culture! Why do we have higher productivity than other nations and less satisfaction with life? Why despite our advanced health care facilities do we struggle with lifestyle diseases? With some more time to call our own, we will have the energy to tend and harvest a garden, to spend those 90 minutes butter-poaching carrots, to chop fresh veggies for a salad, to go for a walk after dinner with the family… Why is our response to the lack of time in American lives to sell pre-peeled and pre-cubed butternut squash, and baby carrots, and pre-washed greens? These things need industrial processing, and centralized production, so we get corporate food from somewhere else in the country, wrapped in a bunch of extra packaging that may be impossible to recycle, and this is a convenience? And tastes good??

Kids with Knives

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My kids like to help in the kitchen, but by age 3 or 4 my older child was getting increasingly frustrated by being limited to dumping in ingredients and stirring things up – he wanted to get in on the knife action, and let’s face it, butter knives just don’t cut it!

Now I’ve read The Continuum Concept and know that in some cultures children are allowed to use knives from such a young age that they can barely manage to hurt themselves with it, and I’m sure that experience of minor knife accidents is a good teacher and children learn to respect knives early and handle them early, but I wasn’t quite ready to make the leap.

But the idea kept nagging me, and I had my inspiration when I remembered reading Julie of the Wolves way back in grade school, and learning a little about Alaskan natives and I remembered being impressed that children were allowed to use a knife called an ulu with a half-moon blade. This was also the knife women used for their cooking needs, as opposed to the long, straight-bladed hunting/slaughter knives.

Women's Ulu Knife

A little modern hunt on Amazon revealed the existence of two-handled half-moon knives – called mezzalunas after the Italian word for a half-moon. Coincidentally, my online handle in a number of forums is “mezzaluna” which I chose for the astronomical significance, not even knowing about the knife at the time!

Two handles was the important part here – a traditional Alaskan ulu has one handle you grip in your palm, but with a two-handled knife, there’s no chance you’ll get a finger under the blade and exert enough pressure to hurt yourself. I ordered a Nigella Lawson brand beauty of a mezzaluna on Amazon, along with a slightly bowl-shaped cutting board.

Here’s my happy boy, chopping up apples last fall to make applesauce!
James chopping apples with a two-handled knife

A few words about knife skills for tots – anything that has a chance of rolling off the cutting board will! I showed my son how to chop the apple in half first, then lay the halved apple flat side down to cut further chunks without rolling. For longer items like cucumbers or carrots, I will pre-cut in half lengthwise for him, and let him cut the pieces from there.

Let me know if you try this with your kids!

The Gift of Shabbat

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Friday nights in our household, the table gets set with a white tablecloth, wine cups, two candlesticks, and is soon adorned with a challah and a Shabbat dinner. Along with our bustling preparations, you’ll find my husband and myself checking a few last emails and then shutting our laptops, not to be opened until Saturday night after the kids are asleep.

I first had the idea maybe a year ago, but it took me a while to find the courage to even propose it to my husband as a new family habit. I was both excited and scared that he would agree to the plan and that I would have to go through with it. We’d been adding more Shabbat observances to our Friday nights and starting to create a real space for a sabbath there – preferring to stick to home or with close friends on Friday nights rather than going to events, and doing whatever we were doing together as a family. My husband was raised Jewish but followed its practices only to a minimal extent, despite deep interest in and respect for a lot of the traditions. It may be cliche, but since having kids we have wanted to teach them about their heritage, and build beautiful family traditions, and a Friday night Shabbat celebration was becoming part of that. Doing a digital fast was a leap from a single observance Friday night to setting aside the sabbath as a unique day of the week.

Previous to our experiment, I admit I felt sabbath days were days of deprivation and restriction. I thought that calling it a day of “rest” was trying to make the best of challenging circumstances, and that calling it a “gift” was a sure sign of being hopelessly enchanted by your religion.

The first night we tried it, I was at such loose ends, I actually tackled cleaning my bedroom closet – something that always sinks to the bottom of my priority list. Realize that I run a large part of my life through the computer – work, social and volunteering – and my usual state at home is to have the laptop open with me going back and forth between taking care of things in the virtual world and the real world. The next day the morning was so peaceful – just enjoying being with my family without feeling distracted or stressed by what else I could be doing on my computer. The middle of the day was fairly normal – time spent doing things together as a family as we always do. In the evening we put the kids to bed, and I actually savored the last bit of time free of the computer before taking a deep breath and plunging back in.

We enjoyed the experiment enough that we have repeated it every week since, and found a few challenges, and many blessings. It is almost humorous how adrift we are without the computers – wondering what Google Calendar is trying to tell us we have scheduled for the day, needing to look up phone numbers and store opening hours for errands we want to run, wanting to check the weather, missing last minute invitations (and cancellations) due to being offline for over 24 hours… We’ve allowed a couple exceptions to the rules – we will use Skype to talk to remote relatives (hi guys!) and I can use my iPod Touch to look at my shopping list if I go, but any new items for the list go on a piece of paper. I’ve started the habit of keeping a sheet of paper near me for shabbat to write down new to-do items and shopping list items, and to write down anything beforehand from my computer that I need to operate for the day.

The annoyances are trivial, though, and the blessings are profound. The whole day is more peaceful and the everyday stresses are at least paused, since there is little we can do about them until Shabbat is over. Our attention and focus can be directed in longer duration to each other and our children. Creativity has space to well up. I find time to pick off tasks from the nether regions of my to-do list, which always gives me a great psychological boost – those tasks can hang over my head for months or years – never important enough to do, but important enough to add to my stress level.

Most importantly for me, in taking 1/7th of my week off from being digitally connected, I have gained more perspective on my computing – able to use it more to serve my needs rather than just using it by default when I’m not doing anything else. The creativity I feel while offline helps guide my priorities for using my time when I am online. And it’s a good thing it’s reduced my idle use of my computer, since it compresses the time I have available for the high priority things I do!

I’ve also been seeing the contrast between my privileged life of space-age intellectualish pursuits and the life of constant manual labor lived by most people in the world and through history. I am thankful to live in a time and culture where I have the privilege of being able to create my own sabbath traditions, but I also appreciate now how universal the appeal is of a day of rest. If I feel this much joy from a respite from *my* daily chores, how much more must a person feel who receives the sabbath as a gift from a loving deity to permit them to rest from their hard labors, reflect on their lives and refresh and rededicate themselves for the week ahead.

This week we had a very special Shabbat – we had been visiting my husband’s family for three weeks and had just set out Friday morning for several days of road-tripping home when we ran over a car’s wheel that was loose in the middle of the highway. Our two driver side tires blew out and we skidded to a stop in the second-to-left of four lanes on the Raleigh beltline. After a few terrifying minutes worrying we’d be rear-ended by someone going 65mph talking on their cell-phone, traffic got blocked behind us and we were merely stuck waiting for police and tow truck. After calling 911, I called back to my in-laws, who came out to retrieve us.

Now our hosts were supposed to be flying to Mexico that day for work, but one was too sick to go and then the flight was cancelled for the other. So we ended up at their home, none of us expecting 24 hours prior that we would be there at all. Exactly two shabbat candles were found in the house. An exquisite challah was procured from a French bakery, and out came a modestly priced wine that was the honestly the best I’ve ever had. Perhaps the fear and upheaval of the day made us savor the meal that much more, but, if I’m not deluding myself, it was really an amazing Shabbat materially as well as spiritually…

Spiritually, because I’ve never had a Shabbat where I felt so thankful for family and togetherness, and for my very life – and the very structure of Shabbat helped me through my reactions to the accident – it offered a time where I could formally be thankful and reflect on my gratitude for what we have, and our practice of being offline for Shabbat gave me the space in the day following the accident to just enjoy my family and let the events of Friday morning sink in without repressing and distracting it all away with computer use. The myriad details that needed dealing with in the aftermath of the accident – all the rearranging of plans – were put on hold until after Shabbat – with only the most urgent happening either before the start of Shabbat, or by phone during Shabbat. I would like to think that these events were not part of any master plan, but if so, all I can say is thank you G-d for Shabbat!

Our OJ is Brainwashing Us

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My 2.75-year old daughter wanted orange juice at lunch today, and because we’re a little too lazy and cheap to buy fresh oranges and squeeze them, we do buy “not-from-concentrate” OJ in a carton. Now I’ve heard about how evil and processed “not-from-concentrate” really is (c.f. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/05/ask-an-academic-orange-juice.html) but yeah, we still buy it.

So – she got the juice carton on the table and poured herself maybe 2 ounces. Then she studied the carton. There is a picture of a tall glass of orange juice, next to an orange. She said to me “Mama, somebody poured too much orange juice, and that’s too bad!” I asked if she thinks it’s for a grown-up or a kid, and she says it’s a grown-up and it’s still too much. I suggested maybe a grown-up could share their big glass of orange juice with someone else and then it wouldn’t be too much. She agreed and says they could share the orange, too. I honestly hadn’t even noticed the orange in the picture – it was just a signifier of the orange-ness of the juice to me – not a depiction of the product in the carton, or even a suggested way to serve the product (who eats oranges alongside their orange juice?). Leave it to the two-year old to see an orange as literally an orange that a person or two might want to eat.

I tried to tell her the picture of the tall glass of orange juice was probably just meant to make people think it was OK to drink a big, big glass of orange juice, so that the company could sell more OJ. I think that went over her head 😉

I can only conclude our OJ is brainwashing us. The image suggests that drinking a big tall glass is appropriate, and it suggests that juice is comparable to fresh fruit. Some fun facts below trumpet how an 8 oz. glass counts as two servings of fruit, and the potassium content is “as much as a medium banana.” Funny how children are supposed to be brainwashed by advertising, but my two-year old spotted the literal truth in the images, and I was the one more oblivious to the messages.

I often reflect on the wisdom I’ve learned from my Nana, and a few things from her are bits of wisdom passed on from her mother, the only great-grandparent of mine I ever got to know. One bit of wisdom all the way from Gammy is that it is uncouth to serve food at the table in its original labelled container. Sugar goes in a sugar bowl, milk in a milk pitcher, jam in a dish with a spoon. My Nana followed this custom to some extent, but didn’t take it as far as her mother – never bothered with the jam, and kept things more casual at breakfast and lunch. My Gammy must have learned this rule about 100 years ago, and I’ve always thought it was genteel, but terribly old-fashioned. But suddenly, I’m thinking unmarked containers could be the wave of the future in keeping advertising at bay in our intimate dining lives at home! And I’m more grateful than ever for our containers that are unmarked because they are home-made products – black raspberry jam from a friend, and peach ginger jam of ours… homemade yogurt and kefir… should I take the fresh-squeezed OJ plunge? I don’t want to be brainwashed by our OJ anymore!

Tickling the Philtrum

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Quick quiz: where’s your philtrum?

A word obscure enough it would probably make a good choice in a game of Dictionary/Balderdash – it is the little indentation in a person’s upper lip.

My husband tells me its origin according to Jewish lore has to do with our pre-natal education: in the womb, an angel tells us all the mysteries of life, and then presses a finger to our upper lips, creating the philtrum, and in that instant we forget. We spend our whole lives marked by that angel, trying to regain what we knew and lost before birth.

Lack of a philtrum is one of those mid-line birth defects (which I’ve written about in a post on tongue-ties ) that can arise from a toxic environment in the womb, such as in the case of fetal alcohol syndrome.

I first starting thinking about philtrums in the context of breastfeeding mechanics. For a comfortable and effective latch, a baby must flange both lips out and not pinch the breast. In this act, the philtrum is folded back against the nose, or even folded in half on itself – I can see an mild red horizontal crease in my daughter’s upper lip sometimes when she’s done nursing. The upper lip stays stationary while the lower lip moves along with the jaw and tongue to perform the suckling action.

One piece of breastfeeding advice sometimes given is to tickle the newborn’s philtrum with the nipple to induce them to tilt their heads up a bit, open wide and draw in the nipple into a nice asymmetrical latch. When the lower lip and jaw encompass more breast tissue than the upper, the baby is maximally effective at drawing milk from the breast by using the jaw movement and tongue action to compress milk ducts in a wave-like motion and bring the milk out.

The tilt of the baby’s head also opens up the throat for the easiest drinking experience (try sipping a cup of water with your head completely level versus tilting your chin up a bit, or imagine what you’d do if you really wanted to gulp back a drink).

Could it be that the philtrum is a landing strip of sorts? A mark for a mother to follow to know where to stimulate her new baby to nurse? Perhaps the natural feeding sequence is even more subconscious than this, but this doesn’t seem like a bad backup indicator.

Newborn at the breast

Now, I have been trying to figure out if there is a difference in sensation between the lower lip and upper lip. It feels subjectively to me that the upper lip is more sensitive. All I can find by googling is that the lips are served by different nerves. The nerve that is responsible for upper lip sensation also serves the lower eyelids and the cheeks. The nerve for the lower lip serves the jaw and chewing muscles.

The high sensitivity of the philtrum led the ancient Greeks to name it with their word for love. And what love could be more primal than infants in their first years of life receiving regular pleasant sensations at their philtrum in association with warm milk and closeness with their mother? Of course we lose this ritual at weaning, only to rediscover some of the sensation in kissing once we are mature. But let me take this one step further. Let me take this to Starbucks.

Yes, Starbucks. Picture yourself stopping in to your local Starbucks, or even your friendly neighborhood non-Starbucks café. Think about ordering one of those fancy drinks – a warm one, it’s winter… something milky and sweet. Caramel macchiato? Vanilla latte? You get a to-go cup – not staying and you forgot your travel mug. Bring it to your lips to sip. Tilt your head back, purse your lips. Make contact with the lid – it’s smooth on your lips, and there’s that agreeable pocket where your upper lip slides in. But wait, are you pinching down with your upper lip? No – you are relaxing it and letting it curl up. Your philtrum is folding back on itself as you tilt your head up and drink in that sweet warm milk. You feel cozy and happy. You tip well.

Kind of takes you back, doesn’t it? (I should mention that human milk, and therefore also infant formula for human babies, is much sweeter than the milks of other mammals, due to the human brain’s intense carbohydrate requirements.) When we drink from an open mug, or a to-go cup with a coffee lid rather than a latte lid, we don’t get that familiar soft pressure on the upper lip. I won’t even comment on how those who were weaned too young may have an unfulfilled need for this stimulation. Starbucks has addicted us to expensive lattes by tickling our philtrums!

I’ll leave you with a shot of my ugly “mug” having a “shot” of some fancy drink or other!
closeup of me sipping from a latte to-go cup

Patronized by intervention

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(I’ve been mulling this post for a while, so the background for those who missed it in the news: The US Preventive Services Task Force has recommended a decrease in screening for breast cancer, with routine mammography not recommended until 50 years of age, and only every two years thereafter rather than annually. They have also determined that breast self-exams and routine clinical exams are not as crucial as we’ve thought. While policy changes are not happening immediately, I wouldn’t be surprised if the scope of routine screening is eventually scaled back, as has been happening for Pap smears and prostate cancer screening.)

Watching the discussion on the recent recommendation for a decreased breast cancer screening regimen, I’ve been struck by the fact that a regimen of less intervention in women’s health is being taken seriously, and I couldn’t help but wonder why we aren’t having the same public conversations about birth practices in America.

Normally, I have an impulse to blame the patriarchy (or more generally, the kyriarchy) for the state of birth practices but here with breast cancer we have a major women’s health issue and people are actually willing to talk about the risks of screening and intervention. Officialdom is actually encouraging women to talk with their doctors about the risks and benefits of the current screening recommendations – Kathleen Sibelius, head of HHS, in urging women to continue with the old recommendations even said:

Keep doing what you have been doing for years – talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions, and make the decision that is right for you.

Can you even imagine this message being promulgated about induction for postdates? Or cesarean for breech? Why are women encouraged to question and individualize their breast cancer screening, but not their births? Are older women more politically powerful and respected than women in their fertile years?

Or is birth exceptional because of the involvement of another life? Can we trace this back to liability? If a malignant tumor is missed due to these new recommendations a most likely middle-aged woman may die of breast cancer, sad, but accepted as the course of nature, especially if the victim is not deemed too young. But if a problem with a birth arises, a baby may die or be seriously injured – sad, and so abhorrent to our society that doctors may feel they need to do things at all costs to prevent that outcome.

Or is it the timescale involved? With breast cancer, there is time to deliberate options, seek second opinions, time for some watchful waiting. In birth, even when discussion of options happens before the onset of labor, such as elective induction, the timescale is no more than weeks long, and typically much, much less. We are urged to place our trust in providers with expertise to make decisions on the spot.

As the recommendation has sunk in, I’ve also been struck by women’s reactions. Women do not know whom to trust: their doctors who have been advising those mammograms, and monthly breast self-exams for the past 20 years, or the panel claiming that these efforts at detection do not pay off. The screening regimen has been promoted as almost an empowerment tool for knowing your body and achieving early detection, yet it leads many women into unnecessary biopsies and even overtreatment, and exposes women to risks from the x-ray radiation and breast compression of the mammogram itself.

A typical reaction against the panel’s recommendations came from Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, D-Florida . She is concerned that the new recommendations are “patronizing” and she said

It’s pretty outrageous to suggest that women couldn’t handle more information.

But this is not mere information – the screening by mammography itself is a procedure can carry risks, and the treatment that may follow carries risks. Isn’t it patronizing that women have been asked to uncomplainingly submit to a heavy regimen of screening based on very little evidence of benefit?

Back to birth – how many women even know that many obstetric practices are more cultural than evidence-based? How many women get an honest discussion with their providers about the risks to common interventions in birth? Perhaps a good comparison with breast cancer screening is electronic fetal monitoring – in select cases, the outcomes can be improved with the screening, but in routine situations there’s precious little evidence of benefit, and high risk of overtreatment. And yet the practice is so unquestioned that the use of EFM is hospital policy in many places, and women who are able to question and customize other birth options are not allowed any alternatives with EFM.

For those who are working to change birth practices in America – does this foretell what women’s reactions may be as practices are proposed to be changed based on evidence from research? Will women be attached to the highly cautious approach and see recommendations to ease up as patronizing? Or will women wonder why they have been sold a bill of goods and start to question other prescriptions around birth?

Almond Miso Soup

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What I most appreciate about this soup, in order
1) It’s tasty
2) The kids like it
3) It can be made with ingredients that store well
4) It can be made raw for extra enzyme power!

I got the idea for this soup from the cookbook Raw Foods for Busy People by Jordan Maerin – first recommended to me a few years ago by Laureen. This is my blending and adaptation of the two almond soup recipes in the book.

  • 1/2 cup raw almond butter
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon or orange juice
  • 2 Tb. raw miso paste
  • 1/4 cup raw honey

Whisk ingredients together over a low flame for a touch of warmth – or heat through if you don’t care about it being raw 🙂 Serves 2 adults and 2 small children.

For some variations – tonight we thinly sliced poblano peppers from our garden to garnish the adults’ servings of soup. Other nights we’ve put sliced onion or mushrooms in the soup as it’s warming. The cookbook suggests a variation with 4 cups broccoli or cauliflower added in, processed in a blender, with the honey omitted and spices added.

The ocean, your kids’ ears, and kombucha mothers

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I used to be fascinated by invertebrate marine animals, but lately my affections have turned to bacteria and how they affect their environments—usually in humans, but my attention was caught recently by news about bacteria living in the top 1/500th of an inch of the ocean.

New research by a Canadian scientist is revealing more about the bacteria that live in the top 60 microns of the oceans. Globs of carbohydrates—jelly, the researchers called it—released by phytoplankton in the lower inches of water float up to the surface and form an incredibly thin layer. The layer is remarkably intact, surviving up to surface wind speeds of 16-18 knots. As it buffers the environment below from surface turbulence, it nurtures a microbial colony that is dominated by organisms commonly found in biofilms. Biofilms are found in many many places, and seem to have roles both in the origin of chronic diseases like recurrent ear infections and tooth decay, as well as in the protection of human health, such as in the reserves of good bacteria in our appendixes. They also form the slippery coating on rocks in streams, tiles in shower stalls, and the inside of sewer pipes. And my favorite zoogleal mat—the kombucha culture—is a variety of biofilm as well.

There is something amazing and terrifying to me about bacteria and other microorganisms ganging together to form large-scale structures with differentiated functions and microstructures like channels to shunt nutrients around in the film.

In the case of the microbial colonies at the surface of the ocean, we may find them intensely involved in the processing of contaminants in the ocean and in the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Understanding the health of the oceans and how they affect the health of the whole Earth must involve an understanding of this minutely thin surface layer—as everything coming into and going out of the ocean passes through this layer!

How strange that global warming, chronic ear infections, and kombucha share this connection. I’m starting to read a review paper from 2007 in the journal Microbiology to understand a bit more about biofilms – given my interests I think I’m going to keep hearing about them through the years!

Tongue-Tie, a second look

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Back in 2007, I began to be puzzled by the high incidence of tongue-tie in babies, and how much it can affect breastfeeding. I blogged about it here at the time: Tongue-Tie, unsure whether tongue-tie was being overdiagnosed, whether it had always been with us at this level, and whether something was inhibiting our ability to cope with tongue-tied babies. In so many ways it seems to me the obstacles to breastfeeding happen when we deviate from natural birth and separate mothers and babies after birth whether in the early hours with routine newborn procedures, or weeks or months later as moms are forced back to work by pathetic maternity leave policies. And yet on the issue of tongue-tie, it’s the breastfeeding supporters advocating to diagnose this more often and treat tongue-ties with clipping procedures – more medical intervention to make breastfeeding work better.

Because this is an anatomical issue, it’s not likely that medical interventions or cultural practices contribute much to the breastfeeding difficulties. Minor tongue-ties can resolve themselves if the mother can stand some uncomfortable latching at first as the baby’s tongue stretches out over the early months, and if the mother is willing to let the baby hang out for long hours at the breast trying to get enough milk with a poor latch. But some descriptions I’d read of the pain and supply drops that can come with nursing a tongue-tied baby convinced me that cultural attitudes about breastfeeding management weren’t the only factor in the high modern incidence of tongue-ties requiring clipping.

Another explanation could be that lactation consultants are clip-happy and perceive a higher tongue-tie rate than is warranted. And again, that maybe be a factor, but I’m not convinced that explains the observed tongue-tie rate either.

This April, I finally found a plausible theory, and it’s been chilling to think about. The prevalence of endocrine disruptors in our personal care products, our food packaging, our drinking water may be leading to increased birth defects – particularly the “midline” defects that involve glitches in formation along the long axis of our body during the first trimester of pregnancy. Tongue-tie is a midline defect, as is cleft palate, some heart defects, hypospadias (a penile deformation) and spina bifida. A doctor in Indianapolis – Paul Winchester – even claims to have found a seasonal variation in such birth defects – hypothesizing that this is due to exposure to agricultural pesticides. An interview with Dr. Winchester on the radio show Living on Earth aired in April, 2009 and the transcript is also available at that link.

What inspired me to write this now was the column this week by NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof: It’s Time to Learn from Frogs. He goes over the mounting deformities in fish and amphibians and connects it to genital deformations in male babies – 7% now with undescended testicles, and 1% with hypospadias. He also appeared on the Colbert Report to spread the news more widely.

Seems to me we can chalk up another consequence of the toxic environment we have made for ourselves – increased struggles with breastfeeding due to anatomical defects in our babies. More mothers experiencing pain and difficulty breastfeeding – more babies unable to nurse adequately – more babies needing doctors to believe that clipping at a bit of skin can save their chances at breastfeeding. The vast intervention of our toxic load precipitates more interventions to try to restore healthful normal feeding and development.

Of course the effects of endocrine disruptors go beyond breastfeeding success, but breastfeeding never seems to get mentioned as a casualty of toxic exposure, perhaps because breastfeeding is so often framed as a matter of personal choice and personal struggles. I’d like to draw a line from this private pain to a constellation of other disruptions of the natural order, and admit that I’m more convinced now that we really are seeing more tongue-tie now than in decades past.