Category Archives: Natural Family Living

A Southerner’s Guide to Playing in the Snow

snow pantsTwo weeks ago, we had snow. That stuck! So you could play in it and make snowmen, and sled, and everything. This is a rare occurrence – it happens maybe every two or three years. That means my kids were even more excited than a northern child to go play in it – and also that they were much less equipped. They stayed outside for 20-30 minutes, then came inside tearful as their soaked jeggings and wet cotton mittens contributed to a quick drop in body temperature and painfully cold fingers. They definitely had “The Umbles,” and it wasn’t very safe for them to play in that gear.

So when I heard Pax was headed for us, I shopped for snow pants, ski gloves, and boots. And died of sticker shock. It’s just crazy to spend several hundred dollars to outfit two children for a once-every-24-months event, especially when they’ll grow out of most of it in a year!

So here’s what I did to keep costs reasonable, and my kids relatively warm and dry:

  • They already have winter coats, so torsos and arms were taken care of
  • For gloves, I passed up the one remaining pair at our local Dick’s (cost: $50/pair), and ordered some extra long Thinsulate gloves – even with one-day shipping, the total for both pairs was about $40. These are the most critical item, and the hardest to fudge, so I made an investment. I did order on the big side, to stretch their useful life.
  • For keeping feet warm and dry, we used rain boots with thick socks. The strongest combination would be slightly roomy boots combined with one pair of technical wicking silly pantssocks and one pair of wool socks, but we did OK with fluffy cotton socks.
  • For keeping butts and legs dry, I used a technique I learned while cloth diapering – take some wool Goodwill sweaters, felt them, and make them into pants. If you have a small enough kid or a large enough sweater, all you have to do is cut off the sleeves (and maybe some of the body, if you need a bit more fabric) and sew them together. If you don’t have expertise or supplies to make an elastic waist, you can just cut slits for a drawstring or pin the waist to the child’s clothes. To take it over the top, lanolize them, and they’ll be practically waterproof!
  • Regarding lanolizing – I didn’t have time to completely soak thick wool and get it dry before the snow hit, so I made some lanolin spray with about 2 tsp each lanolin (it’s in the breastfeeding section of drugstores or Target) and hand lotion, mixed with about 1/2 cup very very hot water. I shook it up in a spray bottle, sprayed it on the outside of the pants, and hung them to dry overnight above a heating vent. Worked great!
  • Oh, and you probably don’t want to put the pants in the dryer after lanolizing, because they’re basically covered in grease. Please don’t burn your house down.

I had to stitch together swatches to make pants for the big girl, and they look awfully silly, but she didn’t balk at wearing them.  And they happily stayed outside for more than an hour. They made snow angels, and one completely buried herself in the snow. They came inside and their regular pants underneath were completely dry and warm!

So I invested about $50 and an afternoon, and now my kids can play in the snow safely and happily. I’ve even got some scraps of sweater left if they need an impromptu hat or some leg or wrist warmers. Happy snow day, y’all!

Time’s poor science reporting on AP sleep habits

Would you be surprised to learn that Time Magazine published an article criticizing bed sharing and staying with a baby or toddler until he’s asleep?  Me neither.  Would you be surprised that the “science reporting” involved was pathetic?  Me neither.  How about the fact that the story is framed in an inflammatory, accusing manner?  Not a shock, huh?

This was back in 2008.  Time put out an online article with the headline How not to Get Baby to Sleep.  The article reports on two different areas of study, but discusses them in tandem to make its point: If you’re present when your baby falls asleep, or bring them into your bed, you will cause significant sleep problems.  This in turn is “associated with an increased risk of being overweight and having emotional and behavioral difficulties in adolescence and adulthood.”

The referenced study discusses parents being present when the child falls asleep, taking the child into the parental bed, and giving food and drink upon night waking, and describes these actions as “maladaptive parental behaviors” . (I don’t know if the study authors are just presumptuous, judgmental jerks about cosleeping, or if “maladaptive parental behavior” is an actual, defined term of art in this field.  Regardless, I felt like I needed a barf bag nearby for use every time I read it.)  Of course, the first two “maladaptive” behaviors are common practices of attachment parenting.  According to Time, these behaviors “led to disrupted sleep — bad dreams, short sleep time and delays in falling asleep — in children of preschool age.”

The clear message of the Time article is, “If you cosleep, you’re causing your child’s sleep problems and probably dooming them to a fat, stupid, anti-social adulthood.”

The problem is, the cited study actually comes to almost the opposite conclusion:

Findings support the hypothesis that maladaptive parental behaviors develop in reaction to preexisting sleep difficulties. Further, early sleep difficulties are more predictive than parental behaviors in explaining [bad dreams] and foreshortened [total sleep time] beginning at age 50 months. Results are interpreted in light of early emotive/physiological self-regulation problems. . . .

When controlling for early sleep factors, most parental behaviors no longer predict future sleep disturbances ([bad dreams], [total sleep time]) or remain predictors only in interaction with prior [sleep onset] difficulties.

The study found that it first appeared that cosleeping and staying while a child falls asleep might be causing sleep disturbances, but when they controlled for early sleep difficulties, it showed that parent behaviors had almost no effect on sleep problems.  The one effect that remained was that taking a child into the parental bed upon night waking was associated with a sleep onset time of more than 15 minutes.  So if you’re really concerned that it might take your toddler 16 minutes to fall asleep instead of 14 minutes, you might want to worry about that.

(And actually, given that the study relied on questionnaires filled out by parents, how reliable is this?  How do parents who aren’t present at sleep onset determining the time until sleep onset?  I think the results would be better summarized as “When parents are absent at sleep onset, they assume their kid fell asleep faster.”  Who would have thought that it seems shorter when you’re downstairs watching Game of Thrones than when you’re in the dark, singing “Toora Loora Looral” for the twelfth time in a row!)

But it’s not good marketing to write an article that says some kids are born worse sleepers, and that parents wind up lulling them to sleep or cosleeping more often, but that there’s nothing you can really do about it.  People want to have directions on how to fix infant and toddler sleep problems, and the ammunition to judge those smug, freaky AP parents who don’t let their babies cry themselves to sleep.  Subtle, equivocal results just aren’t sexy.

And this speaks to the larger issue of the diminishing quality of science reporting.  In a recent episode of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Steven Novella pointed out that every major news article got the “Did dinosaur flatulence warm the Earth?” study totally backwards, no doubt because it’s a more charming, clickable headline if dinosaurs farted themselves to death, regardless of what the science actually says.  He also mentions being interviewed and having reporters feed him quotes.  They didn’t care what their expert source actually thought or what the evidence showed – they just wanted a ventriloquist’s dummy with some letters after his name to mouth their preconceived angle on the story.

Luckily, Emily at Double X Science has a good checklist to run down when you see a showy “science” headline: The Double X Double-Take Checklist for Reading Science News is a great list of suggestions that will help you avoid being taken in when science journalism goes to the dark side.

I suggest you keep that checklist (and possibly that barf bag) handy whenever Time addresses attachment parenting.

Nutritionism and baby formula

Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Ruth Uchida, left and Haruko Nagahiro, m . . . - NARA - 539478I’m listening to the audiobook of In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan.  I’m on Chapter 1, and I’m already blown away – he’s such a great writer, and his message is so applicable to my life.  One thing that struck me as he began discussing nutritionism (the ideology that food is significant only for its nutrients, and how they promote health) was that the approach was perfectly illustrated by the history of baby formula – we figured out protein, fat, and carbohydrate, and got really excited and obsessed about analyzing foods for those building blocks, and assumed we had it all figured out.  Feed babies a liquid with the same amounts of macronutrients as found in human milk, and babies would thrive even without mother’s milk.  Only we started finding new constituents of breast milk that we’d missed originally, and we saw the babies using the formula develop health problems.  And this continues up to this day!

Well, shut my mouth if Pollan didn’t quickly come to the baby formula issue, saying exactly what I had been thinking.  “The entire history of baby formula has been the history of one overlooked nutrient after another…and still to this day babies fed on the most ‘nutritionally complete’ formula fail to do as well as babies fed human milk.  Even more than margarine, formula stands as the ultimate test product of nutritionism and a fair index of its hubris.”

Maybe what we need to do is stop blaming individual mothers for “choosing” formula (often moms don’t really have viable options), and acknowledge that our whole culture around eating is seriously messed up.  Science is great – you guys know I love science!  But we do tend to get overly enamored of its fruits sometimes.  America especially strikes me as besotted with technology, even when actual science shows us that the technology produces poor outcomes.  We like gadgets, we like control, and we like improving on things.  And we’ve become so used to this approach that we have trouble seeing when we should chuck it.  Margarine turns out to be more evil than butter?  The answer is to take out the trans fats . . . and add fiber to it . . . and also add probiotics.  Never mind eschewing processed food and eating whole foods like our ancestors did.  Baby formula isn’t close enough to breastmilk to protect babies’ health?  The answer must be to add DHA to it . . . and probiotics!  Never mind changing our work life to allow moms to actually feed their babies breastmilk, or making sure pediatricians have extensive knowledge of breastfeeding support.

It’s heavy stuff to ponder – I feel a bit panicky at the prospect of abandoning my nutrient-focused, “food for health” perspective and maybe just eating like people did before Kellogg’s (and Nestle, of course).  But maybe I can do it, if I learned to trust my body to feed my babies properly, and changed my personal culture to ditch nutritionism and trust appetite.

Product review: Basic G

Crunchy moms are always looking for cleaning products that really work, without exposing the family to toxic fumes or unduly harming the environment.  Vinegar has to be the number one recommended “natural” cleaner, and it does work for a lot of applications, particularly cleaning glass.  There are indications that vinegar disinfects, but as this article points out, the claims for vinegar’s disinfection properties are often vague, and purported demonstrations of its effectiveness in isolated tests just doesn’t give me that warm fuzzy feeling that official documentation does.  Well, Shaklee claims to offer the best of both worlds – their Basic G disinfectant has those reassuring government tests demonstrating it’s effective against 40 different microbes, while they say it’s better for the environment and safer for the user than the mainstream alternatives.

Basic G lists didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride and n-Alkyl (C14-50%, C12-40%, C16-10%) dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride as its active ingredients.  Shaklee’s information is full of happy-sounding but somewhat imprecise descriptors like “no fumes,” “safe,” and “environmentally friendly.”  I have to say I’m rather frustrated as I try to figure out whether this stuff is really much better for humans or the Earth than bleach or Lysol.  Shaklee doesn’t offer any concrete evidence.  Googling turns up lots of breathless reviews that take Shaklee’s claims at face value, and a couple sites that complain the ingredients are toxic.  Of course, I suspect these sites are pretty quick to clutch their pearls at any “chemical,” and would object to any cleaner that isn’t safe for use as a dessert topping.

Shaklee likes to note that Basic G is “EPA registered,” leaving the implication that the product is somehow certified to be environmentally friendly, but that is not what “EPA registered” means.  If a disinfectant (in this situation referred to as a “pesticide”) is registered with the EPA, that means it has been tested and confirmed to kill certain microbes effectively, and the EPA has determined certain standards for its use.  That is certainly useful information, and one reason I like Basic G is that there’s official confirmation that it works, but I think many customers are going to assume the EPA registration means it’s “green,” and that’s not the case at all.

I can tell you that the Basic G concentrate bottle and the bottle it’s meant to be diluted in both carry the standard warnings against drinking, inhalation, eye contact, and prolonged contact with skin.  Some Shaklee distributors’ sites say the diluted product is so safe you could drink it, but obviously that’s not recommended, and the fact that the warnings come on the dilution bottle as well make me really doubt it’s that safe and gentle.  (It’s also worth noting that bleach, while it is toxic and can be dangerous, really can be drunk when properly diluted.)  After all, this fluid is meant to kill living organisms with minimal contact time.  Anything that can do that is going to be potentially toxic.

So, let’s assume that this is an effective cleaner that is relatively safe if handled properly, but which isn’t as benign as soap and water or vinegar.  What’s it like to use this stuff?  Well, Shaklee doesn’t make it very easy to use.  They offer a spray bottle specifically meant to hold the diluted product.  However, the instructions on the concentrate tell you how to make 1-2 gallons of cleaner, while the sprayer holds 16 ounces.  To use the right amount of concentrate for the sprayer, you need to do some fractions, then measure out 3/8ths of a teaspoon of Basic G for each 16 oz of water.  Unfortunately, the sprayer isn’t worth all this trouble, as it has two settings: “OFF” and a high psi stream that tends to rebound at you when you shoot it at any surface.  Now I know why the warnings suggest safety goggles!  I hied over to my grocery store and bought a 32 oz sprayer (takes 3/4 tsp of concentrate) with a fully adjustable nozzle that lets me set it somewhere between a spray and a mist, like I like it.

Now that I bought a decent sprayer and wrote the correct formula on the concentrate bottle, I’m pretty happy using Basic G.  I use it in the same way I used to use bleach solution – I spray down my sink at the end of cleaning, to make sure any foodborne germs are killed, and I spray counters that may have contacted raw meat or eggs.  For disinfection of cutting boards, dishes, and utensils I just use hot soapy water or the dishwasher.  To avoid anything nasty growing in my cleaning implements, I use dish cloths that I wash in the laundry on hot, and brushes that I chuck in the dishwasher.  I find soap and vinegar sufficient for cleaning my bathroom surfaces, as I don’t prepare food on them!  So my use of germicidal solution, whether it’s bleach or Basic G, is pretty limited, and I’m not too worried about having undue impact on our health or environment.

So, bleach or Basic G?  I don’t see good reason to assume Basic G really is greener than bleach, and I use relatively little germicide so any impact is minimal.  For Basic G, one $20 bottle of concentrate will fill my spray bottle 256 times.  Several Shaklee consultant sites mention that once mixed it will last for 30 days.  To obtain it I need to locate a Shaklee rep or buy it online and pay shipping.  With bleach, I need 1 teaspoon per 32 ounces of water, and I can buy 576 teaspoons of bleach for about $2.  However, bleach solution needs to be made fresh daily, which is a pain.  And yet, it’s much easier to buy some bleach during my regular grocery run than it is to procure a bottle of Basic G.  I think they’re about neck-and-neck.  But it looks like my current bottle of Basic G will last for a few years, so I have time to think about it.

Addendum, 2/20/13

Grace was incisive enough to question the assertion that one must mix new bleach solution each day. I tried to find a source for that instruction, and didn’t find anything concrete. The WHO states that “chlorine solutions gradually lose strength, and freshly diluted solutions must therefore be prepared daily.” The CDC offers the more helpful (if more math-intensive):

Hypochlorite solutions in tap water at a pH >8 stored at room temperature (23ºC) in closed, opaque plastic containers can lose up to 40%–50% of their free available chlorine level over 1 month. Thus, if a user wished to have a solution containing 500 ppm of available chlorine at day 30, he or she should prepare a solution containing 1,000 ppm of chlorine at time 0. Sodium hypochlorite solution does not decompose after 30 days when stored in a closed brown bottle

Personally, for home disinfection, this makes me feel comfortable using bleach solution for a month or more, since I store it in a closed opaque bottle, and I’m not trying to disinfect an avian flu site or protect a cystic fibrosis patient. I clean up, and the bleach is a little safety net. If my 1:100 solution winds up being more like .5:100 by the end of the month, I don’t think I’m going to worry about it.

Thanks Grace, for bringing this up!

Just adding a note – if you wish to offer some facts, or even opinions about how great Basic G is, have at it. But if you include any marketing materials, including any link to your personal Shaklee sales page, I’m just going to mark it as spam. So don’t bother trying to drum up business with comments.

California Baby and sodium benzoate

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle about California Baby, a longtime champion of “natural” baby products, adding the preservative sodium benzoate to some of their shampoos and bubble baths.

According to California Baby, sodium benzoate is actually certified for use in organic products.  And in fact it’s approved for use in foods and beverages, never mind shampoo and bubble bath.  Now, some people are saying that it’s a carcinogen, but I’ve seen no evidence of that at all.  Others have mentioned that sodium benzoate can produce benzene when combined with ascorbic acid, especially when heated.  At first I thought that might be hysteria too, but it is actually true.  Wikipedia has a good rundown of sodium benzoate, benzene, and the old standby, “solely the dose makes the poison” in their article on sodium benzoate in soft drinks.  Basically, sodium benzoate can produce small amounts of benzene when it’s combined with ascorbic acid.  The effect is greater when the combination is exposed to heat.  But regardless, the vast majority of soft drinks that form benzene develop only tiny amounts that are probably not a health risk, and pale in comparison to the amount you inhale while you’re filling your car with gas or walking along a busy road.

So that’s the story on benzene in drinks.  In this case, people are concerned that sodium benzoate might be forming benzene in shampoos and bubble baths.  So right off the bat, the risk is much lower because babies won’t be swigging the bottle of bubble bath (well, not in most cases).  Even if California Baby’s products contained ascorbic acid (as far as I can tell they don’t), and might therefore contain traces of benzene, it would be in a product that’s briefly in contact with skin, then rinsed away.  But let me reiterate: California Baby’s products don’t appear to include ascorbic acid, so there’s no possibility of the chemical reaction that would convert sodium benzoate to benzene.

Now, some parents are reporting skin irritation with the new formulas, and that is more plausible.  According to this European Union report, sodium benzoate might cause mild skin irritation in some people.  However, if irritation is a concern, consumers should avoid California Baby products with lavender oil, which is a well known irritant, before worrying about sodium benzoate.  Luckily California Baby does offer fragrance free formulations without essential oils, which can be a rare find in a cosmetics industry that loves to market fragrant (but potentially irritating) products.

The bottom line is that California Baby shampoos and bubble baths are generally safe.  It is possible that a few children could develop skin irritation when exposed to sodium benzoate.  Of course, kids with sensitive skin probably shouldn’t be soaking in bubble baths anyway, so the only issue is the shampoo.  For any parents who are seeing this problem, or noticing irritation with other CB products (which don’t have sodium benzoate), my advice is to first check for any essential oils in the ingredient list.  Since California Baby has tweaked a lot of their stuff, it may be that your favorite formulation suddenly has more lavender oil or clary sage oil (which can sometimes cause skin sensitization).  Even calendula, which is typically used as a soothing ingredient, can cause sensitization and allergic reaction, and CB did just reformulate their calendula, so that could be the culprit.  Unfortunately, I’m having trouble finding any shampoos that are free of both sodium benzoate and essential oils, so if you have a child with very sensitive skin that reacts to sodium benzoate, it appears your choices are very limited.

To recap:  No benzene.  Probably safe for the vast majority of babies, and the essential oils are at least as problematic as the sodium benzoate.  And one tangential musing: it’s ironic that crunchy parents are worried about exposing their kids to benzene.  Sure it’s a carcinogen, but it’s completely natural, and more than that, it’s organic!

The Quest for the Zero-Risk Option

“Sleep training might be harming your child’s brain – why would you take that risk?”

“Drugs have so many side effects!  I’d rather use natural remedies.”

“Parabens are hormone disruptors.  I always use preservative-free cosmetics.”

“I’ve researched the risks of vaccines, and I just can’t expose my child to all that danger.”

This is a theme I’ve noticed in the reasoning of “natural family living” devotees.  Usually these folks are just genuinely concerned about exposing themselves and their families to unnecessary risks.  But they’re missing something very important – there is no such thing as a risk-free option.  Every choice we make is a choice between two different sets of benefits and drawbacks.  I can hardly think of a life decision that will have no downside.  (Perhaps the decision not to smoke.)  Even most benign choices that are generally recommended for our health do have drawbacks.  Exercise is almost always a good decision, but it’s not risk-free.  Exercise brings the risk of injury, as well as frequently involving monetary and opportunity costs.  A healthy diet full of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is of course highly recommended by just about everyone, but again, this can be expensive and time-consuming compared to processed starch and fat obtained at the drive-through window.  Maybe that’s not a significant drawback to most people, but it is a drawback.

With this in mind, let me revisit those quotes, with a more balanced look at the relative risks:

Sleep training can involve babies crying for minutes or even hours.  We know that cortisol levels rise when babies cry, and that in other circumstances continuously elevated cortisol levels can cause serious health effects.  On the other hand, adequate sleep is vital for the health of both babies and parents, and continued sleep deprivation can cause serious health effects.

Medications often have potential side effects, some of which are bad enough to make taking the drugs unhelpful for a particular person.  On the other hand, any remedy that can have a positive effect can have a negative side effect, whether it’s a capsule or an herb, and of course most natural remedies are not proven to ameliorate any health condition, so relying on them involves a greater risk of leaving the original condition untreated.

There are indications that parabens do get into our systems through cosmetics, and it’s possible they have endocrine-like effects.  On the other hand, parabens are used to prevent bacterial growth in cosmetics, and it’s not clear that their actual presence in human tissues or their hypothetical contribution to breast cancer is more dangerous than the potential for smearing a happily thriving colony of staphylococcus on your face every morning.

Vaccines have risks.  Frequent side effects include soreness at the injection site and fever.  More serious health problems are rare, but possible.  On the other hand, vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) are even more risky.  Moreover, a child is at greater risk of injury when you drive them to Whole Foods to pick up some Oscillococcinum than they would be if you get them a flu shot.  (Seriously, more people die in car crashes each year than the total number of people who have even claimed to be injured by any vaccine over the course of 23 years of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.)

When you unpack the assumption that there’s a zero-risk option, suddenly it’s clear that the “natural” option in each case isn’t as superior as it first appears.  Of course, it’s easier to make a buck or get publicity by scaring the pants off people about toxins, “Western medicine,” and vaccine injuries if you don’t include all that pesky factual nuance.  Not only do we consumers have to do some research and hard work to find out about the relative risks of our options, but we have to tolerate the notion that there is no perfectly safe choice, and we will have to expose ourselves to one risk or another.  That’s not a mental place many people want to be, so they turn off their skepticism and simply embrace the notion that “natural is safe and good!”

Unassisted Childbirth

Believe it or not, some people do this on purpose.  They give birth at home, with no trained professionals helping them.  I think this trend is largely a reaction to our prevailing culture surrounding birth, where women go to the doctor, do what s/he says, give birth in a hospital, and probably have at least one medical intervention along the way.  This setup leaves a lot to be desired, and there is a counter-movement that celebrates birth as a normal function, and emphasizes respect for the mother.  This school of thought argues that birth has been over-medicalized, doctors treat pregnancy and childbirth as a disease, technology and intervention are revered (even when research shows that they cause more harm than good), and women are treated as dangerous baby-vessels from whom the fetus must be rescued, often resulting in contemptuous treatment of laboring mothers, sometimes even going so far as performing medical procedures without informed consent.

To a very large extent, I agree with this backlash against hospital birth.  I’m a big believer in free-standing birth centers, where practitioners tend to be more aware of evidence-based practice and more respectful of women.  I also think states should have straightforward processes for licensing and regulating midwives who attend home births.  For low risk pregnancies, particularly for women who have already given birth at least once, home birth is just as safe as hospital birth, and is preferable for many families.

My sense is that unassisted childbirth may often be prompted by a mother’s reluctance to subject herself to the standard practices at a hospital, combined with a lack of other options.  I suspect a good portion of mothers who chose UC would be happy to birth at home with a midwife, if that option were available.

But it also seems that some people have just reacted so strongly against the medicalized version of birth that they’ve landed in La-la Land, where birth is a breathlessly venerated spiritual experience, labor and delivery can be risk-free if only you eat right and exercise during pregnancy, and the presence of any person who wasn’t there when the baby was made is unacceptably interventionist, invasive, and disruptive to the natural process.  This is where it gets dangerous.  Birth may be a normal function, but especially in humans, it is a time of crisis, when things can and do go wrong.  Humans are unique in that our pelvic openings are only barely big enough to allow our babies through.  Pregnancy isn’t a disease, but it is a burden on the mother’s body.  Labor doesn’t have to be an emergency, but it does present health challenges to mother and baby that can become emergencies.

There isn’t a lot of research on unassisted childbirth, because it’s so fringe that there aren’t populations to study.  There’s some data on a religious sect that practiced UC, and of course there’s information from developing countries where women simply don’t have access to healthcare.  In both cases, lack of medical care during pregnancy and childbirth are associated with much higher levels of maternal and infant mortality.  UC proponents argue that these situations aren’t analogous because  good nutrition and healthy practices during pregnancy make UC safe.  However, at least one review of historical data shows that poverty and nutrition had almost no effect on maternal mortality rates in childbirth, and the WHO urges better access to medical care as the best way to save the lives of women and babies in underdeveloped areas.

Some UC supporters say, “birth is safe and normal, otherwise our species wouldn’t be here!”  But they’re profoundly misunderstanding evolution, which only requires a process to be good enough to pass along genes.  Natural selection has resulted in a system where women can get pregnant very frequently, so that despite the peril that an upright stance and a big brain causes, enough babies survive to carry on the species.  I don’t know about you, but “a lot of babies die, but enough survive” isn’t an ambitious enough goal for me.

Some supporters of unassisted childbirth claim that it’s unnatural to have birth attendants.  Aside from engaging in the naturalistic fallacy, this argument fails because it’s just not true.  As far as we’ve been able to determine, mothers have sought help from others during birth for as long as we’ve been a distinct species.  For humans, having birth attendants is what’s natural, while closing oneself up in a separate dwelling and giving birth in the presence of only one’s husband is profoundly unnatural – a behavior emerging only in our modern culture.

Now, I consider UC to be overly risky and poorly rationalized, but I still think women have the right to do it.  Just as I’m pro-choice regarding abortion, I believe that a woman has a right to decide what kind of medical care she will receive, and to reject medical interventions, even if others would find her decision foolish.  I do have an issue with parents UCing and then failing to have the newborn checked out by a medical professional, though.  In some jurisdictions this might even fall under child neglect laws, and regardless I don’t feel comfortable with parents simply looking at a newborn and saying, “Gee, she looks like she’s doing OK.”  Again, birth is a tough process that can introduce a lot of life-threatening conditions, some of which will not be apparent to a layperson.  I remember when a friend had her baby a little early, we were all remarking how chubby and healthy she looked – we were sure she was just fine – only to find out that she had some kidney problems that required immediate intervention.

In the end, that is the biggest problem with UC – hubris.  People look at the few areas where doctors have embraced stupid birth practices that aren’t supported by the evidence, and take away the message that parents are just as capable of coping with the crisis of birth as any hospital.  Often their gamble turns out OK – the birth will be a normal, complication-free event, and no particular knowledge or expertise in medicine will be required.  But the problem is that no one can predict with certainty which births will become problematic, and if you have no one present who has training in recognizing and dealing with such situations, you’re headed for disaster.

Nipple Yeast, Part 2 – Alternative Treatments and What’s in Them

OK, this is what you’ve been waiting for – “natural” and alternative remedies for candidiasis! (Part 1 is background and doctor-style remedies.)

First up, gentian violet.  This is renowned for its quick-acting slaughter of all things fungal, and it’s often recommended in crunchy circles.  Whereas most yeast treatments take at least two weeks, this takes about three days.  The one big drawback is that this stuff is seriously PURPLE and stains everything it touches. (That’s my daughter with a purple mouth, purple thumb, and slightly purple pajamas thanks to GV.)

Want to guess where gentian violet comes from?  Nope, it’s not extracted from organically grown violets.  Nor from gentian flowers.  It’s an extract of coal tar.  It was first used as a dye, but then users noticed when they used it for gram staining microscope slides, it killed all the wee beasties they were trying to look at.  (And yes, I find it a bit hilarious that there are people who decry mineral oil use on the skin, but who happily slather the insides of their infants’ mouths with extract of coal tar.)

The other potential risks of gentian violet are mouth ulcers and a possible increased risk of cancer.  But that’s based on a study of ingestion of large amounts by mice.  Honestly, if I had it to do again, I would still use gentian violet for nipple yeast.

Next big natural cure: grapefruit seed extract (GSE).  Again, this seems to be a pretty powerful antimicrobial agent.  There is research showing that its efficacy is comparable to that of bleach in killing microorganisms.  And because it’s derived from grapefruit, a lot of moms feel more comfortable using it on their nipples and in their infants’ mouths.  But that’s where we need to back up the truck – the reason this stuff is so powerful is that it is either contaminated with or nearly chemically identical to well-known antimicrobial chemicals Triclosan, benzethonium chloride, and benzalkonium chloride.  The latter are often referred to simply as BAC.  One study found some commercial GSE preparations contained Triclosan.  The others typically find the spectrometry is pinging for BAC.

The main manufacturer of GSE, Nutriteam, Inc., maintains that their product is not contaminated with BAC.  They say their GSE is just similar to BAC, so it confuses the spectrometer.  And well, I kind of believe them.  My conclusion is that their product isn’t contaminated.  It’s just that it is for all intents and purposes BAC.  I don’t know how BAC is typically manufactured, but I suspect you can make it using grapefruit as a raw material.  And Nutriteam themselves call GSE a “quaternary compound” (just like BAC is), and describe a manufacturing process that sounds pretty industrial and non-crunchy.  It sounds like they’re doing pretty typical chemical synthesis to me.  And they wind up with a substance that tests and works just like BAC, only they call it a dietary supplement so they don’t really have to comply with any regulations, and they slap a label on it that makes it sound like something natural, not a “chemical” or gods forbid, a “toxin.”

Now, BAC isn’t actually evil, necessarily.  It’s used as a preservative in cosmetics and in anti-bacterial wipes.  Hell, if you’ve ever given a urine sample, you have probably smeared BAC all over your naughty bits.  And since many people have used GSE without ill effects (beyond a bitter taste and the possibility of dry, peely skin), I wouldn’t be averse to using it myself if I ever got nipple yeast again.  I really don’t like that the manufacturers are getting away with fooling people, but look at my previous yeast post – it feels like rubbing your nipples with broken glass.  For me, I’d hold my nose and use GSE since it makes that go away – quickly, for both me and my nursling, without having to get a prescription and explain to the doctor why Nystatin doesn’t work and how much Fluconazole you really need to prescribe, and so on.  But I do think moms deserve to know the real story before they decide whether to use it.

So there you go, two wildly popular crunchy alternative yeast treatments, that aren’t really that crunchy.  But I’d still use them!