National / Science & Health

Japanese 'lactivist' seeks to help young moms overcome breastfeeding hurdles

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

Midori Ogino champions breastfeeding as a biological gift that helps newborns survive and thrive. Making it a cultural norm and erasing societal taboos over breastfeeding in public is an investment that pays back many times over.

Ogino is a so-called lactivist not because she pushes breastfeeding at all costs, but because she thinks it is time governments invest in the promotion of breastfeeding, make every drop of breast milk count and give mothers the care they deserve.

She knows of too many Japanese women who fail to reach their breastfeeding goals because of the various barriers placed in their way. Successful breastfeeding isn’t a matter of luck, rather it is the product of practical knowledge and social support, she says.

“I’m not saying we should ignore women’s choices or desires, but it scares me that millennial moms are repeating the ‘formula is just as good’ mantra. It’s simply not true,” Ogino says.

“In many cultures, child care is not down to one mother, but a whole village. Public breastfeeding is a taboo in Japan, and women have to hide in the bathroom to feed their baby. This is how nursing is viewed in our society.”

Ogino doesn’t want to make bottle-feeding mothers feel guilty, but she wants to bust myths using scientific evidence and common sense while ensuring that mothers are provided the accurate, unbiased information they need to make informed choices about breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is a natural act, but it is also a skill that takes practice. Arming yourself with important facts about breastfeeding before the baby arrives is essential, but Ogino says every mother needs nonjudgmental support through her infant feeding journey.

In the absence of a village, professional support is vital to reduce feelings of isolation.

As the founder of Bonyu Lab, a company that measures the nutritional value of breast milk to help mothers produce the best quality milk for their babies, the 37-year-old argues that it is the way media frames breastfeeding as an individual choice that is the real source of the problem.

“Some say nursing is spiritual and they question the ethics of testing human milk. For others, it’s a feminist issue. I’m not saying formula is harmful, but I just don’t want women to be fooled by the false information that’s out there,” Ogino says.

“I want them to make well-informed decisions regarding the breastfeeding of their baby. The first 1,000 days of the baby’s life are the most influential in their development. All babies deserve the best possible start in life,” she says.

In her other role as CEO of Brown Sugar 1st, Ogino has helped fuel the coconut oil health trend in Japan. She says public opinion is becoming increasingly pro-organic and anti-genetically modified organisms, but views are still divided when it comes to breastfeeding.

She received bogus “advice” that sabotaged her efforts to breastfeed her only daughter and knows how these mixed messages on the subject can leave a woman confused and overwhelmed.

Midori Ogino participates at CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 as one of the companies in Jetro's J-Startup Program booth. | COURTESY OF MIDORI OGINO / VIA KYODO
Midori Ogino participates at CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 as one of the companies in Jetro’s J-Startup Program booth. | COURTESY OF MIDORI OGINO / VIA KYODO

Contrary to what the pretty, pink nursery pamphlets or the celebrity “brelfies,” or breastfeeding selfies, on social media might suggest, breastfeeding is time-consuming, draining, difficult, and painful, especially in the initial trial-and-error days.

Many moms say they feel like a failure when their milk supply doesn’t match their baby’s needs, while dads can feel a little jealous as if they have been left off “the team” if they can’t bring food and contentment to their baby in the same way.

By turning breast milk nutrition profiling into a business and organizing her first public breastfeeding event last summer — where women were able to gather and talk about issues concerning their children and breastfeeding — Ogino isn’t trying to ostracize the 1 to 5 percent of women who are physically unable to breastfeed.

But if doctors and health care providers are recommending breast milk substitutes without medical reasons or offering free formula samples, women need to ask themselves who is profiting from her “free” choice, she says.

Fortune Business Insights estimates global infant formula market sales will reach $103.75 billion (about ¥11.4 trillion) by 2026, compared to $45.12 billion in 2018.

Yoko Akan, a Japanese woman with a Turkish husband, says she is glad she didn’t listen to her doctors or ignore her gut instinct when she was still trying to establish a breastfeeding routine with her newborn baby.

“I hated how my doctor tried to coerce me into supplementing with formula because my son’s weight fell off the growth curve. He was alert and active, and I saw no warning signs. I was so gung-ho the doctor let me have my way, but I had to fight,” Akan says.

Akan, who has breastfed standing up on a commuter train and in restaurants, including at a ramen shop, says she makes plenty of milk when she is in Turkey, but the stress she feels in Tokyo slows the flow.

“It’s sad that many women, through no fault of their own, have to stop breastfeeding before they are ready to. These mothers are not failing, but rather, being failed by a government that hasn’t been investing enough in maternity care,” Ogino says.

“We’re mammals. We’re built to lactate. It’s human biology. Breast milk is too good to waste. It’s not just the magic contents but the skin-to-skin contact and all those lovely hormones you release.”

In September 2018, Ogino hired a team of health care professionals and founded Bonyu.lab. Bonyū in Japanese literally means “mother’s milk.”

Through a monthly subscription service, the firm offers a basic bonyū testing kit that costs ¥9,800. All the mother needs to do is fill out a health questionnaire and send frozen samples of her breast milk to a lab to understand what she is feeding her baby.

A breast milk test kit for parents to use at home | COURTESY OF MIDORI OGINO / VIA KYODO
A breast milk test kit for parents to use at home | COURTESY OF MIDORI OGINO / VIA KYODO

The testing lab is the brainchild of Ogino, who wondered if there was anything she could do to help nursing mothers take charge of their own bodies and breastfeeding outcomes. When the mother receives her test results, she also gets practical nutritional advice from a dietitian. The samples are also used to evaluate the relationship between the mother’s dietary habits and physical activity level and an infant’s condition.

“There may be other companies that are measuring nutrients in breast milk, but we’re the first company in the world to analyze subjective and objective data, study the mystery of a mother’s milk and provide personalized solutions,” Ogino says.

Ogino does not doubt that any woman who chooses to breastfeed should be able to do so anytime, anywhere, without shame or criticism. She feels the conversation around breastfeeding needs to change so that women can openly discuss their struggles.

Families, communities, and workplaces each have a role to play in affording women the time and space necessary for breastfeeding, she says. It promotes healthier moms, healthier babies, and thus healthier societies. It’s a win-win-win.

“Today, the topic of how and when we feed our babies sets off a national debate. We need to be able to talk about breastfeeding and leave emotions out of it. Saying ‘breast is best’ is oversimplifying a complicated issue for mothers,” Ogino says.

The World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their lives and continue for “up to two years of age or beyond.”

Apart from the added bonus of breastfeeding burning extra calories for the mother, exclusive breastfeeding is associated with reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers, Type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression, according to the WHO.

Breast milk contains antibodies, which help protect babies against infection, and it can also help prevent sudden infant death syndrome. Breastfeeding exposes your baby to lots of flavors, and it is said that children who are breastfed are less likely to be picky eaters.

“I’m not saying you should be hell-bent on making breastfeeding work because I know the pressure to breastfeed can hurt moms. But I know in Japan, lack of breastfeeding support is often cited by mothers as one of the key reasons for premature weaning,” Ogino says.

Bonyu.lab is committed to being right by the mother’s side so she’ll feel empowered to breastfeed longer, with less stress and more enjoyment. We want to support these women because they’re making health care decisions that aren’t just for themselves.”

Ogino warns consumers about misleading labeling on formulas and asks them to consider the environmental cost of bottle feeding, including the amount of water and energy required to prepare formula, whether it be powdered, liquid concentrate, or ready-to-feed.

“Breast milk produces zero garbage, zero greenhouse gases, and zero water footprint. It’s the most environmentally friendly food available. I want my daughter to grow up thinking the human body produces nature’s perfect baby food,” she says.

In an ideal world, Ogino says the value of breastfeeding would go uncontested, and 90 percent of all mothers would do so, even with the help of a breast pump or some formula feeds sprinkled in here and there.

According to the WHO, only 41 percent of infants were exclusively breastfed in the first six months of life in 2018 as recommended, far short of its 2030 global target of 70 percent.

“Women cannot breastfeed alone. Breastfeeding isn’t only about the act of feeding. We all play a role in supporting breastfeeding. It’s a collective societal responsibility,” Ogino says.

“The important thing is that women don’t face societal pressure and unrealistic expectations of motherhood. Women shouldn’t have to choose between breastfeeding and returning to work. The two activities can coexist.”

We need to ensure our governments create an optimal environment for women and children to thrive, and all of us need to be involved in safeguarding their right to breastfeed, Ogino says.

“We need to protect, support, and promote breastfeeding and mother-baby bonding. Breastfeeding saves lives, saves time, and saves money. Investing in our children’s future is everyone’s business.”