L: Dr. Meghan Azad R: Alessandro Marcon
Instagram and breastfeeding might seem like an unusual pair, but a new study made possible by a $10,000 collaborative grant obtained by the Health Law Institute (HLI) from the University of Manitoba aims to show just how closely the two are related.
The study, already well underway, will explore whether Instagram users are building communities of support around women who breastfeed.
The idea for the new project came after HLI Research Associate Alessandro Marcon heard Dr. Meghan Azad, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba, speak at an AllerGen NCE conference in Vancouver last spring.
Dr. Azad spoke about women who breastfeed and stop early, before reaching recommendations set out by the World Health Organization (WHO), which advises “exclusive breastfeeding for up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”
Marcon has learned that women stop breastfeeding early for a number of reasons, including the social stigma around breastfeeding in public and workplaces failing to offer an appropriate space to breastfeed, something the Canadian Human Rights Commission explicitly tells employers to provide. To this point, studies have shown that breastfeeding discrimination lawsuits have risen dramatically over the past decade, and the topic appears to be gaining even more attention as of late. At the end of March, Dr. Cesar Victora, a prominent Brazilian breastfeeding researcher, was awarded the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award.
“In developed countries like Canada and the U.S., breastfeeding rates generally declined once infant formula became available in the 1920s, and dropped even further when women started joining the workforce in large numbers, reaching an all-time low by the 1970s. Rates have rebounded since then, as the benefits of breastfeeding and human milk are being more widely studied and recognized. But they still fall far short of the WHO recommendations,” said Azad, who is also a Research Scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba.
The benefits of breastfeeding Azad speaks about can be found on the WHO website, which states: “Breastfeeding protects against diarrhoea and common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, and may also have longer-term health benefits for the mother and child, such as reducing the risk of overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence. Breastfeeding has also been associated with higher intelligence quotient (IQ) in children.”
Following the conference, Marcon approached Azad about the idea of working together to further research the problem, and she agreed.
Building a dataset with computer scientist Mark Bieber, Marcon and Azad initially searched Instagram for popular hashtags associated with breastfeeding such as #breastfeeding and #breastisbest, and are now analyzing corresponding images. They are especially interested to know which images have the most likes, the types of comments left on images, and where breastfeeding in each photo is taking place (e.g., at home or at work). Additionally, they will examine whether certain products and clothing are being marketed towards breastfeeding.
The final paper – which they hope to publish to coincide with world breastfeeding week in August or Canada’s national breastfeeding week in October – will be written by both Marcon and Azad, and will also include input from Professor Timothy Caulfield.
Marcon, who alongside his colleague Blake Murdoch recently wrote, directed and produced a fact-based video on asthma and allergy treatments offered by naturopaths, said he is hopeful the study will help provide evidence for health policy makers in terms of promoting breastfeeding on social media like Instagram.
“Everyone knows social media plays an [impactful] role in our lives, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that role is,” he said.
It is also hard to pinpoint exactly how many women stop breastfeeding prematurely in Canada. Though some limited national health surveys exist, Azad said there is a need for better monitoring of breastfeeding data north of the border.
“Supporting breastfeeding should be a global priority and a societal responsibility,” she said.