This is the third post in the series about the book "Nourishing Traditions". To read the first part, click here. The second part is here.
Disclaimer: this post focuses only on the section on infant feeding in "Nourishing Traditions", which is just a small part of the book
As I approached the section on infant feeding in Nourishing Traditions, I was looking forward to a detailed survey of breastfeeding practices in traditional cultures, including perhaps a comprehensive list of foods which are thought to be beneficial for nursing mothers. Perhaps detailed suggestions of milk-boosting diets, meals, beverages etc.
I was severely disappointed. At the beginning of the chapter, the author says that the importance of breastfeeding you baby "cannot be overemphasized." However, I felt that the rest of the chapter contradicts this statement, by concentrating mostly on recipes for preparation of homemade baby formulas, and by providing some advice which is outright detrimental to successful breastfeeding.
Are homemade "natural" formulas better than commercial formulas? Perhaps. Let's even assume so. But no formula will ever come close to breastfeeding, either in nutritional content or otherwise. Mother's milk is the food God designed for babies; cow's milk is the food God designed for calves. It's as simple as that. Cow's or goat's milk protein is unlike the protein in mother's milk and is less well suited for human infants. Yes, it is possible for a baby to grow up just fine on formula, but on all points – nutrition, emotional and immunological benefits, convenience, protection from exogenous diseases – the score of breastfeeding is infinitely higher. Therefore, whatever possible under the circumstances must be done to ensure that the baby is breastfed.
The author flatly and unequivocally states that the optimal duration of breastfeeding is six months to a year. This essentially means that some babies should be completely weaned as early as six months of age! This is just plain wrong, both according to the current position of the WHO, which states that
"Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond"
– and according to wisdom of most traditional cultures. As a matter of fact, I find it astonishing that a book which takes such an obvious stance of learning from traditions of various people scattered throughout the world, blatantly ignores the fact that in said cultures, breastfeeding normally continued well beyond one year of age and certainly beyond six months! In the Jewish tradition, the standard length of breastfeeding is two years.
The statement, "remember that babies should be chubby" (page 601) really grated on my nerves. Is there no room for diversity, no role for heredity to play in the baby's body build? This expectation from two tall lean parents to produce a fat little butterball baby, makes mothers anxious about their milk supply when in fact they have plenty, and causes them to rush to supplement with formulas and artificially fatten up their babies. There's a little one living nearby who's just of age with Shira, and much chubbier. But when my husband lifted him, he was surprised to find out that he in fact weighs less. I suppose that's because our daughter has good, dense bone and muscle structure. Her growth sprouts always result in height and never in chubbiness. Yes, she's lean – and healthy. And so are we.
When I came to the final page, titled "Tips for Successful Breastfeeding", I was severely dismayed to read much of the same counter-productive advice you often hear from doctors whose knowledge on breastfeeding comes close to zero. Yes, good nutrition and proper rest play an important role in maintaining good milk supply. But the author neglects to mention that the most important factor in boosting milk supply is nursing on demand, which usually means often. Again, where is the analysis of practices of traditional people?
I remember, in our final year in university we ran a class for Ethiopian women on nutrition and cooking (now that I think of it, I realize how foolish of us it was to introduce them to the Mediterranean diet without encouraging them to also retain their own, traditional and very healthy diet). Some of them came to class with their babies. The babies were always wrapped in slings close to the mother, and nursed whenever they wanted. I never heard a peep from them.
How about this: "If you have any qualms or fears about not having enough milk, assemble the ingredients for homemade formula…" not "check if you really have cause for concern"; not "contact a lactation consultant and/or a
representative", not "nurse more often." Prepare to give formula!! According to the author, "having the supplies on hand can be enough to give you the peace of mind that allows your milk to keep flowing". Well, you know what? This very strongly reminds me of the well-meaning doctors and nurses who tried to persuade us to keep a can of formula at home, just in case. Does having formula around help to keep the milk flowing? On the contrary, it provides an additional breaking La Leche League
point for a mother in a moment of weakness or despair.
Supplementing may be necessary sometimes, but it is just about one of the most critical steps towards diminishing your milk supply.
And this: "Lack of adequate milk supply sometimes does occur, especially as baby grows and his appetite increases." Yes, sometimes during a growth sprout it does seem as though the milk supply is inadequate. However, by nursing more often, eating well and resting, milk supply can usually be increased. Mother and baby are hormonally tuned to one another. Infant suckling stimulates milk supply. Lack of adequate supply doesn’t just "occur" (it's maddening that an author which is all for encouraging natural processes in the body, allows her readers to think that a basic bodily function like lactation just stops or decreases out of the blue). It has reasons which can often be traced to things like abrupt night weaning, introduction of solids, spending time away from your baby, giving a pacifier, a new pregnancy, etc.
I'm not saying that mothers who couldn't breastfeed, for whatever reason, should feel guilty. But I do think that authors should feel guilty if their advice might have undermined breastfeeding for thousands of women.
My final conclusion? Eat the apple and spit out the seeds. "Nourishing Traditions" is a fascinating book with lots of material for thought and valuable advice, and it will certainly be kept at a place of honor on my shelf, and often referred to. However, on this matter of breastfeeding I quite plainly disagree with a lot of what the author has to say.