501Der Women 2024: Author of the Month – Dr. Christie del Castillo-Hegyi

By Susan L. Peterson

The ability to give birth and then supply nourishment to a child might be considered a female superpower.

Unfortunately, the preconceived notion exists that providing nourishment through breastfeeding is always easy and comes naturally to all new mothers. The fact is, some may find it difficult, like that superpower has been diminished or destroyed. But despite complications, many women are still pressured to persevere with breastfeeding, no matter what the outcome. For those new mothers, the “breast is best” message might lead to feelings of shame and anxiety, or to even more tragic results for their infant.

Photo by Mike Kemp

Dr. Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, a Little Rock emergency physician and co-founder of the Fed Is Best Foundation, has co-authored a book, “Fed Is Best: The Unintended Harms of the ‘Breast Is Best’ Message and How to Find the Right Approach for You and Your Baby,” to inform the public about how to feed newborns safely and adequately.

In “Fed Is Best,” del Castillo-Hegyi relates her own experience as a first-time mother whose child became critically ill from starvation leading to developmental disabilities due to common breastfeeding advice. Subsequently, she sadly discovered that her experience was not all that unusual. She concluded that breastfeeding alone is not always best, and parents and medical professionals need to be educated on how to tell when this might be the case.

She is now on a mission to inform others that pressures to breastfeed exclusively can be damaging and that there are other alternatives. “Every situation is different. There is no right way, and sometimes the breast is just not enough,” she said.

Her message is a simple one, but initially she found it difficult to convey. It was in 2014, following her son’s diagnosis of multiple developmental disabilities and a seizure disorder, that she began research on this phenomenon and found they occur routinely. Complications such as jaundice and dehydration from inadequate feeding were the most common reasons healthy newborns get re-hospitalized. Furthermore, they were known causes of brain injury that could be prevented with supplementation. She wrote to several medical associations, including the Centers for Disease Control, the American Association of Pediatrics, and the Joint Commission, to inform them of her findings. Rather than issuing warnings, the responses she received seemed to merely placate her, saying they would look into it, according to del Castillo-Hegyi. Some did not respond at all.

Frustrated and armed with her research, she tried contacting pediatricians directly. Some were dubious, but others noted that they too had witnessed similar complications for years. Excessive crying and nursing are some symptoms of inadequate feeding that can result in jaundice, dehydration and hypoglycemia.

 When she started blogging and posting on Facebook, her message went viral. There she heard stories familiar to her own and found other like-minded medical professionals who felt morally obligated to share this message. Online contacts with two experienced medical professionals were especially promising.              B. Jody Segrave-Daly, RN, a NICU registered nurse and international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) from Pennsylvania, eventually became the cofounder of Fed Is Best Foundation with del Castillo-Hegyi. The two then paired up with Lynnette Hafken (MA, IBCLC), who resides in Maryland, to write the book.

Over the course of several years, del Castillo-Hegyi has spoken in hospital grand rounds, medical conferences, at the NIH and USDA, and has published on a fatal case of dehydration in a breastfed newborn in a medical journal. The three have also written extensive educational material on every type of safe infant feeding on the foundation page website. They then built upon previously published peer-reviewed articles and their research on cases of infant starvation received from families who wrote to them. This has led to the “Fed Is Best” book, which provides science-backed guidance on how to tell if a baby is getting enough nutrition. Included are practical guides to breastfeeding, combo-feeding, pumped milk feeding and formula feeding, with sample schedules to help parents maintain their milk supply and get more sleep.

Publishing the book was not a quick process. After finding an agent, it took three years to find their dream publisher, BenBella Books. The book is finally in print and is available for pre-order on Amazon and other online publishers. Its scheduled release date is June 25.

Some critics have found the book’s message to be controversial or misinterpret it as anti-breastfeeding, which it is not, del Castillo-Hegyi said. Instead, she wants to educate and inform the world of signs and symptoms of the dangers of insufficient feeding and destigmatize the use of supplements. In her words, “Even I as a medical professional didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Knowledge can also be a superpower, and her aim is to arm new parents with information to maintain health and save lives.

Finally, the word is getting out. Fed Is Best Foundation’s message has been featured in articles in the New York Times, Forbes Magazine and hundreds more articles. However, the latest statistic still shows that one in 71 newborns is hospitalized for severe complications from inadequate milk intake while exclusively breastfeeding.

More information about del Castillo-Hegyi, the Fed Is Best Foundation, and the “Fed Is Best” book can be found at FedIsBest.org and fedisbestbook.org. She lives in Little Rock with her husband, Michael, also an emergency physician, and her son and twin daughters.