Nourishing Traditions and breastfeeding

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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.

A collection of posts

For those who might have missed them, here are my most recent Mother Earth News posts:

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Choosing a Milking Goat

“Many assume that a “good milker” means an animal with high milk yields. In fact, the milk yield forms only one part of the milker quality equation, the other two parts being the state of the goat’s udder and teats, and the animal’s temperament.”

Natural Winter Skin Care

“Winter is here, and with it cold, dry air, sharp winds, and chapped, cracked skin. This can be a real pain, especially for those of us who still have to tend to outdoor chores every day. Last winter I suffered from a very bad case of red, dry, painful hands and spent a fortune on expensive medical-grade creams and lotions, but this was before I fully discovered the wonders of coconut oil and shea butter and the satisfaction of making one’s own simple skin care products.”

Make Chicken Waterer From Old Bucket

“In the past we provided water for our flock of backyard chickens using all sorts of dishes, bowls, pans and buckets. These were stepped in, pooped in, upturned, and in general quickly resulted in a messy coop and thirsty chickens. The problem was exacerbated when we had to leave home for a couple of days – we could heap up the feed, but the water just wouldn’t last.

Then, after some experimenting, my husband made a simple, cheap, DIY waterer using an old paint bucket and a few waterer nipples.”

Myrtle: the kitchen discovery

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Myrtle is very common in Israel and in the rest of the Mediterranean as well, its hardiness and evergreen freshness making it a perfect choice for decorative hedges. It also has a significance in the Jewish faith, being one of the four species used in celebrating Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles).

It was only very recently, however, that we discovered that the myrtle berries – and leaves too – are actually edible. We are still experimenting with this, but in general the leaves may be added to soups and stews in a way similar to laurel leaves, imparting a subtle flavor and aroma (remove before eating), while the ripe berries can be likewise used in stews, sauces, meat, chicken, fish and even grain dishes. They have a fruity, slightly astringent flavor.

Myrtle berries are quite ripe when they are dark purple to black in color, which happens around here as late as November-December. Places where myrtle hedges are used for decorative purposes are good locations for picking; I can’t imagine anyone would object. Myrtle would be a good choice for planting on one’s property as well. It’s a hardy shrub which always looks fresh and smells delightful.

Besides flavoring various dishes, I have read that myrtle berries can be made into jam or steeped in alcohol to make a drink traditionally produced in Sardinia. We haven’t tried this yet but might experiment in the future. Myrtle also has some unique health properties, in particular for treatment of respiratory conditions and skin health. Here is a simple recipe for making myrtle oil at home. If I try this out, I will let you know.

Easy Coconut Cream

Every time I’m whipping up a dessert, my husband hopefully asks, “is it parve“? Parve essentially means a dish that contains neither meat nor dairy. Since Orthodox Jews must wait six hours after consuming meat or chicken before they can eat dairy, it’s no wonder most people try to make their desserts parve. Unless they are vegetarians, in which case it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, in many cases this leads people to use unhealthy ingredients such as margarine or fake cream with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the desserts they make – and a whole lot of sugar to make the entire thing more palatable. For me, parve dessert has usually meant fruit salad or, in season, chilled melon or watermelon… that is, until recently I discovered the wonders of coconut cream.

Coconut cream contains natural, stable, healthy fat (in particular containing large amounts of lauric acid, which is renowned for its antibacterial, antiviral properties) and, when chilled, has the perfect consistency for whipping – in fact, it acts almost exactly like normal cream.

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Whipped coconut cream. Doesn’t it look just like the real thing?

So here’s how you do it: pick  a can of coconut cream containing at least 17%-18% fat and chill overnight. A hard fatty layer will form on top; skim it off carefully with a spoon and add a little of the liquid at the bottom (use the rest of the liquid in baking or smoothies). The cream can be whipped and combined with all sorts of flavorings to create a variety of desserts. Yesterday I made delicious halva mousse by whipping up the coconut cream with raw tahini and some honey. I imagine it would go equally nice with chocolate… yum! I imagine it can also be frozen to make natural, dairy-free ice cream.

Personally, I love coconut, but the taste of it is very mild in the cream, so even those who aren’t coconut-crazy can enjoy this.

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I also wanted to let everybody know that the work on Your Own Hands, the new simple living book, is going well and at this point I have most of the first draft complete. I also put some improvements and formatting changes into The Practical Homemaker’s Companion, which is now 122 pages long. I left the Payhip price at 4$, less than the print and Kindle version, as I really prefer people to download from Payhip because it only takes a small commission compared to Amazon and payments are instantly transferred to our Paypal.

When everyone is sick

About a week and a half ago, I woke in the middle of the night because Israel vomited all over me (what a way to wake up, huh?). At first I thought (hoped) it was only a fluke, but when he continued being sick in the morning, and my two other children picked up after him, I realized we’re in trouble. Then, as my husband and I I began feeling sick ourselves, I had this sinking uh-oh feeling, because few things are more exhausting than caring for a bunch of sick children when you are not on your best form yourself. I vividly remember the night when I had to get up every hour to take care of another vomiting kid, and then found it difficult to fall asleep again because I felt so queasy. On the up side, it was an opportunity to finish reading a book I’ve been hacking at for ages.

Luckily, it didn’t last long – a couple of days at most – but these were a very intense couple of days which left us totally drained and with a mountain-high pile of stinky clothes and bedding to wash. Oh, and should I mention that exactly at that time, the water pump leading to our area broke down? The stinky pile had to wait, while it got stinkier and stinkier and, eventually, some sheets developed horrible mold and had to be thrown out.

What a time. I also wrote a post about this on Mother Earth News:

“If you also have to deal with a houseful of sick little ones, this can be particularly challenging, especially if your kids, like ours, are used to running in and out of doors at all times and find it frustrating to sit or lie down still and quiet. It helps to provide some quiet amusement in the form of books, coloring books, sketching pads, and other quiet, non-messy crafts. Let your children curl up with you in bed for some reading together, or allow them to spread a board game or puzzle on the floor while you are relaxing on the couch. Movies can have their place, too, of course, but in general I find that prolonged staring into a screen contributes to fatigue and doesn’t promote the overall sense of well-being.”

The Diaper Debate

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A long time ago, when I was pregnant for the first time and we had many lofty ideas about our own capabilities, my husband and I talked about cloth diapers. We pretty much decided we are going to use them, for the sake of frugality, sustainability and baby’s skin health. It just seemed the right choice all around, until one day, when I was getting pretty big, we had the following conversation.

DH: “But where would we wash the diapers?”

Me: “What do you mean, where? We put them in the washing machine.”

DH: (wrinkling his nose): “What, you’ll put poopy diapers in the same machine that we use to wash our clothes?”

Me: “Not in the same cycle. We’ll wash them separately, you know.” 

DH: “I still think that’s gross. Think of all the bacteria that will be left over.”

Me: “Well, what do you suggest?”

DH: “My Mom always washed our diapers by hand.”

Do I have to tell you? We’ve been using disposables ever since. And at times I’ve been feeling guilty about it, too, especially when I haul out a big garbage bag full of almost nothing but diapers and think about it adding to some tremendous landfill.

It wasn’t just the gross factor that put us off; we’ve had plenty of poop in our washing machine anyway over the years, what with newborn blow-outs and all. There were periods when changing a poopy diaper equaled changing a whole baby outfit, every time. We’re still all alive and well.

It was also that conveniently made cloth diapers are a pretty hefty initial investment, one we hesitated to make, and I’m not up to sewing my own. And, of course, there’s the convenience; at times, I’ve been so overwhelmed by laundry (especially not having a drier, on long rainy weeks in winter) that voluntarily adding more seemed an effort of will beyond my capability.

As a compromise, I have tried doing early potty-training, with babies running around bare-bottomed around the house on many a summer day. The little tushies got a pleasant breeze, we saved some money on diapers, and I felt better about the ecological aspect of it all.

In the place where we live now, we have frequent electricity and water shortages, up to the point that everybody living in the neighborhood often gets requests to save on electricity and water as much as possible by trying to minimize the usage of air conditioners, ovens and, of course, washing machines. An extra load of diapers every day or two just doesn’t seem feasible in such conditions.  I actually believe that in Israel, where water is a precious commodity, bio-degradable diapers may be more eco-friendly than cloth.

There had to be, however, a compromise: green and convenient; eco-friendly but disposable. So lately I’ve started looking into the option of switching to bio-degradable disposable diapers, such as these. I’d love to hear from any of you who care to share your experience. Cloth? Bio-degradable? Plain ol’ Pampers?

Health and homesteading

Check out my latest Mother Earth News post: what happens when physical limitations stand in one’s way to self-reliant life.

“Even in our modernized age when almost everything is done at the click of a keyboard, being able-bodied is still an essential part of building your own house, starting a homestead, and keeping it going. But what do you do if certain health problems interfere with your homesteading goals? Should you accept that some things just aren’t meant to be – like building with your own hands, for example?

It is my belief that there is an alternative way to do pretty much anything, and even to profit from the seemingly untoward circumstances that might seem as a death certificate to your dream.”

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Illustration: mid-renovations mess in our living room, just before our son Israel was born.

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