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, plus detailed suggestions of milk-boosting diets, meals, beverages etc.
I was disappointed. At the beginning of the chapter, the author says that the importance of breastfeeding your baby “cannot be overemphasized.” However, I felt that the rest of the chapter contradicts this statement by concentrating mostly on recipes for 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. Cows’ or goats’ milk protein is unlike the protein in mother’s milk and is less well suited to human infants. Yes, it is possible for a baby to grow up just fine on formula, but on all points – nutritious, emotional and immunological benefits, protection from exogenous diseases, convenience and price – the score of breastfeeding is way higher. Therefore, as I see it, it’s definitely worthwhile to do everything possible 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 – which 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 around the world blatantly ignores the fact that in traditional cultures, breastfeeding normally continues well beyond one year 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.
When I came to the final page, titled “Tips for Successful Breastfeeding”, I was dismayed to find 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 adequate 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 traditional practices such as attachment parenting, baby-wearing and co-sleeping, which all encourage frequent nursing?
It isn’t that I think everyone should go the attachment parenting way. Parents are perfectly within their right to offer pacifiers and insist that the baby should sleep in their own room from day one. But if we’re talking about optimizing the chances of successful breastfeeding, people should make their choices with open eyes.
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 La Leche League 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? I’m sorry, but I’m not buying that.
Supplementing may be necessary sometimes, but it is just about one of the most critical steps towards diminishing 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 spurt it may 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 in to one another. Infant suckling stimulates milk supply. Lack of adequate supply doesn’t just “occur” (it’s maddening that a serious author implies 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 insightful material and valuable advice, and it is 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.