‘Human Milk. Tailor-Made for Tiny Humans’ is a breastfeeding ad with a powerful message that resonates strongly with many mothers. When I learned the video was made by a group of parents who volunteered their time and money, I asked Claire Tchaikowski, the founder and director of the project, for an interview on the one year anniversary of the video’s release.
What is the group ‘Human Milk, Tailor-Made for Tiny Humans’ and when did you start it?
‘Human Milk, Tailor-Made for Tiny Humans’ is a collective of parents working together, mostly remotely, to share the science of human milk with as many people as we can. We have different backgrounds, in the arts, science, technology, management etc, and we all have commitments to day jobs and young children.
It started in September 2014 when I decided to do something to help the many women in a Facebook breastfeeding group I was in. We were all feeding infants over the age of one, and many of us were getting criticism for it, poor advice, and little help. At that time I was completely new to breastfeeding, and had no idea how many of us were in that position, or that poor advice and support were common for mothers with infants of all ages, in many different countries.I didn’t think there was much I could do, but I wanted to do something. My background is in music and film production, and it struck me that I could make an advert for breastfeeding. I didn’t know what it would be, and I had definitely never made an advert…
I received a PDF from The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM) Chair Emma Pickett, who had heard about the project, with information about what components our milk contains and what they do. I was completely blown away, and was shocked that I had never heard any of this before. Straight away it was clear that this was the knowledge I wanted to share with as many parents as I could.
It started with a phone call to my friend Dana Trometer and her husband Eric, who are film makers who run https://burst.pictures/ in London. Dana and I agreed to make a short film together. That’s all it was going to be; a very short film, a personal project that we thought we could finish within 2 months and hoped to share with a few hundred parents on Facebook.
How long did it take to make the video?
It took 13 months till the day of the shoot, and a further 13 months until the ad was ready.
What work had to be done before you could start shooting?
Oh gosh… There was a lot more than I imagined. The first thing I did was set up a Facebook group, and invited mothers from the breastfeeding group to join me there to incubate some ideas. I woke the following morning to 480 member requests. Over the 2 years it grew to almost 2000… Some of the people who helped along the way came forward in that group.
It started with a plan of what this film was going to look like. I knew broadly the info I wanted to share, but not how to share it. I wrote several scripts that didn’t feel right, then finally decided on a format I liked, and was promptly informed by Eric (who directed the ad) that this would require special effects that would cost a fortune. So that was scrapped too.
At the same time, I was reading up on the science of human milk. Everything I could find. I was understanding only a fraction of it. The more I read, the more I realised how daft my idea was, and how little I knew. And how much help I was going to need. I was connecting with people around Bristol who work with mothers on a daily basis, so that I could ask what they thought of the idea and what they felt was needed. I spoke with our local LLL Counsellor, Infant Feeding Leads, Peer Supporters…
I realised that the project was going to take longer than I had imagined. Our son was 19 months old, teething and waking every hour and a half. I was new to Bristol (and motherhood!) and didn’t know anyone, and I was completely exhausted. But also completely determined, because the information I wanted to share felt important and inspiring. Also, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised the scale of the problem, and the urgency to contribute kept growing in me. In a beautiful way, I was discovering that I wasn’t alone with my struggles of early motherhood, and that was a huge comfort to me.
I needed to learn about making an advert. I have no background in advertising or marketing. I called a friend who works in the field and said “I appear to be making an advert….” He gave me pointers, like what you can and can’t do and say, what to focus on, what to look out for, and who the governing bodies are, like the ASA (Advertising Standards Association). It turned out that I needed to check if the ad fell under “Medical claim”, which needs special clearance from the ‘Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency’ (MHRA). That was a fun investigation! They had never encountered how to ‘classify’ human milk, and it took some enquiring on their part to learn that we didn’t fall under their remit.
After that, there were things like finding the venue for the shoot, the technical equipment, how on earth we were going to pay for this, who was going to be filmed, who was going to help on the day, where all those people were going to park, what patterns they needed to avoid wearing because some things distort on screen, who was going to do the make-up, etc……
I also had to bear in mind that we would need music and a voice-over after the shoot. Writing the script was challenging because it’s tricky to get complex science into a simple phrase that someone like me, with no scientific background, can easily understand. I admit that I was feeling terrified at this point. I felt out of my depth from the science point of view, but that was the point; parents like us needed a much more simple “translation” of the science.
My partner wrote and produced the music, a friend of his mixed it. After finding that a professional voice-over artist was unaffordable, I did the voice-over myself, which was another huge learning curve…. It’s harder than it might seem!
A few months before the shoot I met Hilda Allen, a designer and new mother, who asked if she could help. Suddenly the world of logos and websites and video graphics opened up! I wasn’t aware of needing any of those before meeting her, but once I knew what she was offering, it became obvious that it would take the project to a whole new level. And yet more learning!! A Uni friend of hers, Ray Mongey, signed his team up at http://www.glue.ie/ in Dublin to do the animated graphics. That was another few (really fun) months of working out what we wanted, and what it could look like.
At this point, I was also still organising everything on my own, except the technical aspect that Dana and Eric were covering. Our son was still waking many times a night, I only had childcare 2 mornings a week and I was working past midnight every night.
And then there was everything that had to be done after the shoot to finish the ad and launch it… I knew I had bitten off too much, but you just keep going, don’t you!?
How many behind the scenes people helped? Were they all volunteers?
Including the 22 mothers and their husbands/partners and their children who came to the shoot, about 150 people have contributed in some way. Some small, some very big. All essential. And yes, all volunteers.
There has been some feedback that you should have used a more racially diverse group of families in the video. You mentioned that the plans had been to have a diverse cast. What changed that, and how will you be handling this differently in future projects?
Yes there has been controversy over the lack of racial representation in the ad. It is lacking, that’s a fact.
The sad thing is that the original ad idea was clear as day, and it was mothers from every continent on screen. That was my starting point. I didn’t know where to look for the cast beyond the Facebook incubation group.
I still wasn’t familiar at that time with any other breastfeeding groups. When I put out the call, the lovely Lucy who admins Bristol Breastfeeding Mummies offered to forward it to her group. The following day I woke up to offers from over 45 mothers, twice the number of families we needed. Only two mothers weren’t white, so I included them in the “shortlist” first thing, and set about looking specifically for some more diverse families in the two months leading up to the shoot. I asked in the group and called friends, and eventually found another two families. I kept spaces open till the day of the shoot in case anyone else could be found, though the call had been closed to white families for two months.
And then life with young families kicked in the week of the shoot. One family got sick with croup a few days before. Another couldn’t get childcare for her other kids, and has a sensitive child who would not have coped with being at the shoot (our son’s the same so I totally got it). Someone had double booked. Normal family stuff. But I was gutted that among those who couldn’t make it were the diverse families.
We live in a predominantly white area of the UK, and working with real families there was no way of replacing people at that point. I wasn’t a big corporation with access to casting agencies, I was one mother who was just managing to not fall apart with exhaustion whilst organising something bigger than I had ever imagined.
We had paid over £3000 of our own family savings to cover the rental of the studio and the equipment, two friends contributed as well, and between the cast, crew and helpers over 100 people were booked to come. If we had postponed, we would have lost everything and there would be no ad at all. So we went ahead, knowing what we were doing was the first step. I’m glad we did because it was an incredible day with amazing people, and I believe the positive effect the ad has already had has been worthwhile.
The lack of representation of humans from all over the world is an obvious issue, it always was. We’re fixing it as fast as we can. We have gorgeous shots on our website and social media because photographer Jenny Burrows came forward and volunteered a shoot for a day after the ad itself was ready.
Our ambition is to get ads on TV (ridiculously expensive, so we’re not there yet!). Even just more ads online will cost a lot. If we manage to find the money to do either of those things, the first thing we’ll do is reshoot footage specifically to include everyone from as many diverse backgrounds as we can.
What response have you gotten from professionals in the breastfeeding community?
It’s been a humbling response. The ad and infographic are being used by hundreds of hospitals, universities, IBCLCs, Associations, local councils, and support groups across the world for training and inspiration. I’ve received the most beautiful messages of thanks from India to Australia to the USA to Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, New Zealand and more, and all across Europe. From healthcare professionals and from parents. It’s been phenomenal, and deeply humbling.
The video is focused on the science of breastfeeding. How did you ensure the information was accurate?
In the beginning, a trainee doctor friend helped me. We both soon realised we would need more specialised help. Emma Pickett was helping to collate information as well, and she introduced me to Dr Natalie Shenker, the co-Founder of the Hearts Milk Bank in the UK. Natalie needed music for a fund-raising film, and I needed a scientist who could make sure that every word we were using was accurate. My partner and I sorted out the music, and Natalie took on the big job of collating the components in human milk, and, where known, explaining what they do.
We’re still collaborating today. Natalie has become part of the Tiny Humans family; our hopes for parents and infants are the same, and our work crosses over on a daily basis. I have huge admiration for her and for what she and Gillian Weaver are achieving at the Hearts Milk Bank. Natalie is hugely knowledgeable and caring, and has infinite patience with my never-ending questions. I suppose it’s a good thing that I have no scientific background, as that makes us work to get to the point where I understand what we’re talking about, which hopefully means other parents will too! The ad script was re-worded many times to make it 100% accurate, and as easy as possible to understand.
Laurel Wilson (US Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) and Senior Advisor at CAPPA) exchanged at least 20 emails with me helping me to understand epigenetics and the role of leptin that we touch on in the advert. My messages consisted of “Ummm, so, do you mean…? Can we say it like this…?” and her replies would say “Well… Sort of…” We were laughing at the end. But we got there.
The video highlighted some very interesting information about breastmilk. What is your favorite fact?
Arrrgh! Choosing one is hard! Ok, lactoferrin. “This molecule has anti-cancer effects, and can inhibit the growth of some cancerous cells. It helps babies to absorb their own iron stores, and binds to iron itself. This binding makes it unavailable to harmful micro-organisms that need iron to survive. Lactoferrin can help viral infections by hepatitis B, hepatitis C, cytomegalovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus (causes the common cold), poliovirus, enterovirus (diarrhoeal virus) and others.”
With my film-making hat on, I can imagine a whole movie being made about this one component that acts like a body guard for our child’s iron stores, as well as all the other things it does!! I think it’s phenomenal, and it’s only one of a long list of incredible components.
Dr. Amy Brown, who authored an article for KellyMom, is one of the advisors for your group. What has her role been in your projects?
I met Amy through the incubation group. I didn’t know who she was, and initially found it slightly odd chatting with someone with a picture of the crazy haired Doc Brown from ‘Back to the Future’ as a profile picture. She sent me her research on what mothers and fathers want in relation to breastfeeding. Science and advertising featured high on the list, so that was a relief! I’ve learned a huge amount from Amy about the societal and political norms that influence motherhood and breastfeeding, especially in the UK, and we were able to check the related content of our website with her.
She organised a survey of 2,000 people just before the ad launched that looked at people’s attitudes to breastfeeding in the UK. The results are yet to be published, but the survey shows how little knowledge the general population have (myself included before all this!) of the difference between human milk and formula milk.
We’re planning to look into how attitudes to breastfeeding change as a result of increased knowledge of the science. We’re also working on developing resources for biology classes in secondary schools. It was Amy who took the advert for its first official screening, during her talk at the UNICEF BFI Annual Conference 2016.
Amy and Natalie have become close friends, and I confess I’m not sure I would have held onto my sanity without them this last year and a half.
How much did the video cost to make, and how was it funded?
The advert itself cost about £220,000. That’s without the website and the work that followed its release. This was funded by everyone working for free, and includes over two years of project management, legal advice, original music, animated graphics etc.
The £3,000 of our savings invested in the shoot day was for the studio and equipment, because we didn’t have any mates in that field who could do us a favour.
What are you working on now?
We want to keep producing resources that are free for anyone to use, so we’re harnessing another passion in order to fund this. We’ve teamed up with artist and dress-maker Kirstie MacLeod (we met at our ante-natal class in Bristol and our sons are close friends too), and Fashion Sourcing, Commercial and Production Manager Katherine, and we’re starting the ‘Human Milk’ clothing and accessories collection.
We’ll be producing gorgeous clothes that are ideal for breastfeeding in, clothes for babies, T-shirts for men, and accessories, designed by Kirstie with patterns inspired by the molecules in human milk, and branded with hang tags full of science. Our first items will be ready in February.
We’re working as a Community Interest Company (Tiny Humans CIC), which is a social enterprise. Profits will go back into creating more resources for anyone to use for free; more ads, electronic and printed materials, booklets etc, and into the big dream of getting these ads on TV. It’s a big dream, but who knows??
You can learn more about the project at human-milk.com.