Eva Fernandes introduces us to Claire Tchaikowski, who has made an advert for breast-milk

Back in May 2015, as part of Bristol Food Connections Festival, I organised an event called ‘Breastmilk – our perfect first food’. This was the first time such an occasion had been part of a city-wide food event, and it gained press attention. So much so, that I was invited to talk to Jenni Murray on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. What struck me was that somehow we have forgotten that our breast-milk is fundamentally food. If we are to follow through on the principle “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”, breast-milk has a lot more going for it than we might think.

While organising the breast-milk event, I met music artist and film producer Claire Tchaikowski. Claire was already thinking about human milk and what was in it. She has now made an advert for breastfeeding, which was launched on 21 January 2017. Whilst past and current breast-milk promotion has tended to focus on the bonding experience and broad statements about immunity and convenience, the human milk advert, its accompanying website and eventually a book will show that science is now providing the evidence that human breast-milk is a true superfood.
Claire, please tell us in summary what the Human Milk advert is all about. ‘Human Milk, Tailor-made for Tiny Humans’ is an independent public health initiative focusing on the composition of human milk and the science of breastfeeding. It has the intention of informing parents and their wider communities of the surprising ingredients and workings of human milk.

You have chosen to follow the science route rather than the more commonly used ‘breast is best’ route. Why is that? I was open-minded regarding the content of the ad when I started out. I had a sense that talking about our milk itself was a good idea, but the first thing I did was talk to people in the perinatal world to get a better sense of what they thought could be useful. Once the word got out about the idea, lactation consultant Emma Pickett offered her help and gave me a document about the composition of human milk. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I realised that before that point I had known next to nothing about what was in my milk. Why had I not known this stuff? I have had a passion for nutrition and health since I was a teenager, yet I had no idea about all the information that Emma had introduced me to. I knew in my gut that it was what I wanted to share with as many people as possible.

The advert gives a taste of the astonishing science of human milk. On the website, we go into substantial detail about its composition and functions, and we also include a large section on support for parents who are considering breastfeeding or are already doing it. Dr Natalie Shenker of Imperial College London has been working with us on completing an infographic for the project website, detailing all the currently known components in human milk and explaining, where known, the function of each. There are over 250, and each of them holds a function that will grow and protect our children like nothing else can. This will be the world’s first exhaustive list of known human milk components, translated into words that everyone can understand and be inspired by.

Most of this information comes from specialised scientific journals, using language I don’t always understand. Natalie will explain it to me, and sometimes I have to swallow my pride and say, “Nope, I still don’t know what that means.” So we work until I do. And hopefully that means that other people with no scientific background will understand it too. I jokingly call myself the translation service for human milk.

Can you give us an example of something you have learnt since translating the science? In 2003, scientists discovered that combining a component in breast-milk, Alpha-lactalbumin, with oleic acid (also found in breast-milk) in vitro destroys cancerous cells. The combination of these two components is known as HAMLET – Human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumour cells. The components we know about are by and large the ones we have been looking for. There could be a whole lot of other components there still to be discovered.

Why do you think no one is talking about breast-milk in this way? I suppose that nurturing and mothering are not highly valued activities because they do not contribute to GDP. As far as I’m aware this is the first advertising campaign for a product that will generate no revenue for the advertisers! However, this project allows us to contribute something bigger to society that is not measurable in financial terms.

What do you hope to achieve with this advert? If people know the reality of human milk, maybe there will be more investment in research and in educating health-care professionals to be able to refer mothers to professional lactation consultants, and of course I hope this will lead to more peer-to-peer and professional lactation consultants being available everywhere and funded.

Tell me about the material you are developing to support the advert. Natalie and I are working on a beautiful book that translates the science into something that is easy to understand and can become a coffee table book that anyone, not just a breastfeeding mother, can look at and be in awe of human milk. The book will be a collation of all the research worldwide that is currently available. There is a need to take this massive amount of scientific information and make it easy to absorb. And – who knows? – by the time the book is published there could be even more astounding facts to incorporate.

Once this information is common knowledge, I hope it changes how we relate to breastfeeding. For instance, when I found out that our milk has painkilling and anti-inflammatory properties, it completely changed my outlook about our son feeding a lot more when he is sick or teething. I had always instinctively fed him on demand, but once I knew more about what my milk was providing for him, my frustration went away, as did my culturally inherited doubt about whether or not I might be ‘spoiling’ him. The point of the ad is to bridge the gap between our instincts and our knowledge. When more of us know about this, I’d like to believe that as a culture we will be more supportive of breastfeeding mothers, both in their early days and for as long as they and their children want to breastfeed.

This started out as a curiosity project, but now you have had worldwide interest from health professionals and organisations keen to use this information in their training. Are you surprised at how it has grown? The whole project has unfolded and grown exponentially. The right people have turned up at exactly the right time to offer help for something that needed to be done, even if I didn’t know it yet! The very first person that I needed a yes from was my film-maker friend Dana Trometer from Tarmak Media in London. Once she was on board, the rest just flowed. Hilda Allen, our graphic designer, found me on Facebook and offered her help. She is working tirelessly on the graphics for the site and will be collaborating on the book. Everyone has volunteered their time and skills for free because they believe in the project and what it hopes to achieve. Once it is out there it will be easy to access on the website and YouTube, and I would also love to push it out via mainstream TV. However, that’s going to cost a lot of money. I am definitely open to help in that area!

Eva Fernandes is a mother of two teenagers and is a community activist. www.evafernandes.world

The breastfeeding advert can be viewed at human-milk.com and www.facebook.com/milk4tinyhumans/

First published in Issue 47 (Early Spring 2017) of JUNO:

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Feedback received from readers:

Breastfeeding Support

I just wanted to say how fantastic your interview with Gabrielle Palmer was. There needs to be so much more education regarding breastfeeding, particularly for those in the medical field. A nurse recently told me that breastfeeds for my poorly toddler should be replaced with drinks of water, as breastfeeding holds no benefit at her age. I know this not to be true, but what if I hadn’t been so sure of myself?! Steps need to be taken to support all mums on their breastfeeding journey, regardless of their child’s age.
Lucy, Colchester 

Advertising Breastfeeding

Thank you for the article on the breastfeeding advert in the most recent issue of JUNO. While it’s hugely important to promote and support breastfeeding here in the UK and elsewhere – which is why I work as a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, and also why I research the depiction of breastfeeding in children’s books – the advert has been somewhat controversial due to the fact that it only features white, heterosexual people. Breastfeeding affects everyone and it is essential to show awareness of the ways in which certain groups may get less encouragement or help. We need role models and representation and support for everyone, and for that reason a group called Solidarity for Under-represented Breastfeeding Families has been set up on Facebook. When discussing topics such as breastfeeding, attachment parenting, education, children’s books, and so forth, I believe we need to pay attention to race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, class, and other relevant issues. Everyone deserves help in reaching their breastfeeding goals.
B.J. Epstein, Senior Lecturer in Literature and Public Engagement in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia