The Myth Of "Breastfeeding Is Optional"

 
Breastfeeding 25th Jan 2016

Breastfeeding is optional? Not for baby, and not if you understand the facts

Breastfeeding is optional for a mother these days. She can choose not to do it. And without social support and pressure to be a "true" feminist, this seems like the "right" thing to do. Baby will usually stay alive with infant formula (despite its many risks including that it is the only consistent link to SIDS).

Breastfeeding is not an option for a child who wants to grow optimally, and what baby does not want that?

The recent book, Lactivism, with sloppy reporting and by misreading the evidence, argues that breast milk makes no difference for the health of the child. It became very popular despite the inaccuracies. It's astounding to anyone who knows anything about breast milk.

Rather, in the mistaken account, breast milk, a 30 million year old substance with thousands of ingredients is supposed equivalent to a "scientific" formula with a couple of dozen of non-human ingredients that are unregulated and contain toxins.

How is this determined? By experiment of course. Randomized, controlled trials are presumed to be the only source of "truth." (Of course it's experiment-focused scientists who want you to believe this.) Obviously evolutionary science is dismissed here.

Experiment-focused science assumes we cannot know anything until a "proper" experiment is done. We cannot rely on the natural world to be intelligent –only experimental scientists know anything for sure (tell that to our ancestors and the billions of other creatures that missed out on experimental science). So for child raising, anything goes until we have an experiment. Of course you cannot ethically do experiments on babies. So, anything goes. Whoever has a stronger soap box or microphone or make-my-life-easy story will win.

Getting Baselines Right

It's amazing that people who think themselves so smart and superior to everyone else, can be so, shall we say, ignorant. They fail to understand other types of knowledge gathering, like observation. Or, how with evolutionary processes, the natural world has "done the experimenting" over eons and provided us with many adaptations that are very intelligent. Nature provides many baselines for making judgments.

Do we really have to take baby birds away from their nests and see what their parents do? (Ignore them). Or feed them some other food instead of the food their parents bring? (Which kills them.) See Derrick Jensen's forthcoming 2016 book, The Myth of Human Supremacy, for a scathing review of scientific arrogance and mistreatment of the natural world.

We have baselines for human nests too (see more below in footnote). And one of these is breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is what mammals do. Social mammals emerged more than 30 million years ago with extensive breastfeeding. Apes have on average four years of breastfeeding. Humans, as the most immature of apes at birth (25% of braindeveloped and more like a fetus in many ways), need the most intensive parenting for the longest duration to reach maturity (3 decades). This requires lots of good caregiving.

Which brings us back to breastfeeding. Anthropologists have studied small-band hunter-gatherer communities around the world, the type of society in which the human genus spent 99% of its history (more below in footnote). They have noted the norms for early childhood. For breastfeeding, it's 2-8 years, with an average weaning age of 4 years (Konner, 2005). Studies measuring only breastfeeding initiation (one attempt) or for 3 months of time are not going to provide the information needed for a true experiment (which, again, cannot be done—can you imagine randomly assigning mothers to children or assigning 8 years of breastfeeding?)

The average length for our ancestors (and small-band hunter-gatherers) is shocking for mothers in advanced nations where societies are built around work and workplaces and not families and child development.

But breastfeeding is what helped our ancestors survive, thrive and reproduce.

Misunderstanding Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is not just about food. Why might several years of breastfeeding matter? Just to mention one thing here (see the links below to much more information): breast milk provides all the immunoglobulins needed for immune system development, which takes around 5 years to develop.

But there are other misunderstandings. Breast milk has thousands of ingredients and these are tailored to the particular child at the time of breastfeeding. Yes! (See Katie Hinde's blog, Mammals…Suck.) This is why doing experiments with pumped milk is not going to work. Or doing experiments at all. Every child is different, developing at their own pace. Every feeding is different. It's an interaction between mom's science-laboratory breasts and the child's needs.

Misunderstanding Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is not just about food. Why might several years of breastfeeding matter? Just to mention one thing here (see the links below to much more information): breast milk provides all the immunoglobulins needed for immune system development, which takes around 5 years to develop.

But there are other misunderstandings. Breast milk has thousands of ingredients and these are tailored to the particular child at the time of breastfeeding. Yes! (See Katie Hinde's blog, Mammals…Suck.) This is why doing experiments with pumped milk is not going to work. Or doing experiments at all. Every child is different, developing at their own pace. Every feeding is different. It's an interaction between mom's science-laboratory breasts and the child's needs.

Myth of Formula as "Safe"

The safety of formula is often touted as "we have clean drinking water, unlike some other nations, so formula is safe." Safe from what? Not SIDS. Formula is linked to all if not virtually all SIDs deaths. See more here about the myths of formula (and more below).

What is advocated in the book, Lactivism, is placing mother's rights over baby's rights. Babies' needs are made secondary to woman's need to be a feminist: "Let's clap ourselves on the back for woman power to not breastfeed, to work like a man and abandon the evolved needs of a child." Of course this is a problem of systems that value work and money over family and make men abandon the family too.

We also have the implicit assumption, propped up by misguided experiment-focused science, that babies don't need so much from moms. This is back to the 'children are resilient' myth that governs treatment of babies in the USA.

In summary, those who argue against the need for breastfeeding:

  • Lack a baseline for what is normal (2-8 years)
  • Use the wrong method for figuring out the importance of breast milk (science experiments)
  • Take up a shifted baseline (infant formula use as safe)
  • Misunderstand what breastfeeding is (an interactive process needed over many years for proper physiological and social development)

Those who argue against breastfeeding may also lack motherly feelings due to experienced trauma, inherited epigenetic effects of trauma from their mother, or medical interference through baby-mother unfriendly practices that undermine bonding. These are societal issues that will plague us until we put child wellbeing at the center of policies and practices, and until we ensure that future parents are supported and have all the capacities to provide their children what they evolved to need.

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