Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Culture of Breastfeeding

Within two days of each other, Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times posted, "The Breastmilk Cure," stating the benefits of breast milk as a cure for childhood malnutrition when used exclusively in the first six months of life, while Worldcrunch brought out, "Spanish mother and baby reunited after breastfeeding row," about a woman living in a social welfare facility in Spain whose child was removed because she was sleeping with and breastfeeding her 15 month-old on-demand. Is it true, 'breast is best,' and if so, for how long? The American Academy of Pediatrics states:

Breast milk alone is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months after birth. For these very young infants, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that water, juice, and other foods are generally unnecessary. Even when babies enjoy discovering new tastes and textures, solid foods should not replace breastfeeding, but merely complement breast milk as the infant's main source of nutrients throughout the first year. Beyond one year, as the variety and volume of solid foods gradually increase, breast milk remains an ideal addition to the child's diet. AAP recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.

So, AAP and WHO recommend at a minimum 6 months, but up to two years for breast feeding your child. Unfortunately, with the introduction of baby formula in the 20th century and the medicalization of maternity at the hands of mainly male physicians, coupled with modern cultural patterns (two wage earners in the family), we've largely turned away from breast feeding as the norm in the West. In addition, as breast milk appears 'watery' and 'thin' compared to formula, to many Western women at least, and as few women today can feed their babies on-demand, round-the-clock, as nature intended - to both satisfy hunger and enable milk production - most women give their babies other foods as well within the first year. But what about more traditional societies, how long do mothers breast feed? How about 2 to 4 years? Would you believe 9 years? And for those engorged breasts when baby is not near, how about asking a friend or family member for relief (and I don't mean another baby!)? For answers to these questions and a fascinating cultural overview at breast feeding in Mongolia, read this excellent post from Peaceful Parenting here.

Nutritional anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler has written extensively on breastfeeding, comparing human growth patterns in infancy and length of breast feeding to other primates. Click here for an interesting bio-cultural look at breast feeding by Dettwyler. Would you believe that feeding to the age of 7 or 9 makes perfect sense given human growth patterns, nutrition and health needs? Now, read the article on the woman in Spain who had her breast fed child removed and consider this the next time you turn away in embarrassment or worse at a woman breast feeding her infant in public: they are not only doing what comes naturally, but what is best for baby.

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