Dear Dr. Christian,

closer idiotI don’t know who you are. I don’t live in the UK and I don’t read Closer, but I have had the misfortune of being exposed to comments you made about breastfeeding in a recent issue.  In five sentences you managed to expose yourself as not only ignorant about the medical research on breastfeeding, but a liar as well as you pulled information out of thin air regarding possible psychological consequences of full-term breastfeeding.

Let’s start where you start: “Breast milk boosts a baby’s immune system, but only for the first six months.  After that, it has no effect.”  I can only assume you have misread the vast amount of literature on the topic which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and then continued breastfeeding complemented with solids thereafter.  If you listen to the World Health Organization, the benefits of breast milk are such that the recommendation is to breastfeed for a minimum of two years.  Yes, two years.  Do you know how they got there?  Research.

You see, your statement would assume that the immune system is either (a) complete at six months or (b) nothing we do can contribute to its development.  We know conclusively that (a) is false, just ask any immunologist, which leaves us with (b).  For (b) to be true, there would have to be no medical benefits of breastfeeding past six months, yet there is quite a bit of research on cancers and breastfeeding that has found the “benefits” of breastfeeding (they aren’t benefits, rather not breastfeeding is the risk based on evolutionary norms, but research still speaks in terms of benefits so I will utilize the same language herein) in “protecting” against certain forms of cancer.  Importantly, this effect is strongest when looking at breastfeeding greater than six months compared to breastfeeding for six months or less[1].  That’s right, not breastfeeding beyond six months increases the risk of certain types of cancer for infants.

What about the myriad other diseases that breastfeeding “protects” against?  Well, we know in the USA that if 90% of women exclusively breastfed for six months, they would save $13 billion in health care costs and save 911 lives[2].  Now, this is only the first six months, but if you believe breast milk magically changes at six months such that a day after all those benefits just cease, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you too.  In fact, researchers have examined the immunological elements in breast milk and guess what?  They are stable in the first two years (and they simply haven’t examined beyond that so we can’t make any claims about breast milk post two years)[3].  This means that we can expect to have immunological benefits for at least that long.  How’s that for helping a baby’s immune system?

Next you claim, “As long as the child is having a healthy diet, there’s no harm in breastfeeding.”  Okay… what?!  Back up…  Who’s talking about harm?  You’re now implying that somehow breastfeeding could be harmful.  Not only that, but that it’s harmful for kids who don’t have a healthy diet when in reality those are the children who would most benefit from breast milk!  Clearly you have no idea what’s in breast milk so let me give you a breakdown of breast milk at an even later age than your six month limit:

In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides[4]

  • 29% of energy requirements
  • 43% of protein requirements
  • 36% of calcium requirements
  • 75% of vitamin A requirements
  • 76% of folate requirements
  • 94% of vitamin B12 requirements
  • 60% of vitamin C requirements

How could this possibly ever be harmful?  Or, more to the point, how could this not be beneficial?  At six months of age – heck even a year – most babies or toddlers are not eating enough calories to obtain all of their nutrients.  In fact, a third to half of parents report their toddlers are picky eaters or don’t eat enough[5], and have you met a six month old who can consume enough solid food to survive?  I didn’t think so.  Let’s be clear: Not only is breast milk not harmful, it offers nutrients and immunological elements that help baby and toddler.

Now we’re at your closing, which is where the whole pulling things out of thin air comes into play.  You claim, “But breastfed older children risk becoming psychologically dependent on the mother.  This could result in behavioural problems as they grow up.”  We’re out of ignorance and into bullshit (pardon the language), aren’t we?  Nothing like instilling fear in parents to get them to turn against breastfeeding, right?  First, let’s be clear, for the vast majority of human history children have breastfed well beyond six months.  Normal, natural weaning occurs most frequently between the ages of three and five[6], though of course there are children who fall outside this median range.  Are you suggesting that every human being prior to our modern culture was psychologically dependent on their mother and thus had behavioural problems growing up?

Second, I’m quite curious what type of independence you think babies have psychologically.  All of the babies I know are psychologically dependent upon their caregivers for support and comfort.  As we know from history and research, babies not given this psychological support and comfort (and instead left to their own devices) suffer severe behavioural problems, mental health problems, and in the worst cases, death[7][8].  For many babies and children, breastfeeding is their preferred means of comfort (though of course it is not the only means by any stretch).  This myth of baby independence does all of our children a disservice by forcing independence on them when they are not ready for it, depriving them of the foundation they need to truly be independent down the line.  Read up on the behaviours of children from current hunter-gatherer tribes where these children are breastfed full-term and try to come back and claim these kids suffer from psychological dependence (as a negative connotation, not the normal psychological dependence that is expected in infancy and childhood) or behavioural problems[9].  I dare you.

All this said, breastfeeding at all or breastfeeding beyond six months will not be for every mother or every family.  There are too many factors that we simply don’t have control over that can end a breastfeeding relationship at any stage – including before it’s begun.  However, what you have said here is so anti-breastfeeding, it needed a response.  I sincerely hope for the presumably many readers of Closer that you are able to look at the ignorant and factually incorrect statement you have made and issue a retraction and apology.  No mother, and certainly no baby, deserves to have this ignorant and incorrect driven paraded around in a public forum from a so-called “expert”.

Sincerely,

Tracy Cassels
EvolutionaryParenting.com
Where History Meets Science in Parenting

p.s. There as been a “retraction” which include some comments from Dr. Christian which I would like to address here:

“Advice on breast feeding is always changing. The World Health Organisation recommends breast feeding for up to two years, while the NHS recommends breast feeding for the first six months.”

Me: Actually not really. Different places make different recommendations, but the WHO recommendation of 2 years has been in place since at least 2007. The WHO bases its policy on health and medical research. Many countries base opinions on feasibility of what members of that country can be expected to do as well as cultural norms.  Personally I prefer to take the global view of WHO whose sole focus is on the medical benefits for babies, children, and mothers. 

“Breast milk is beneficial to a baby’s immune system for the first six months, but there is no harm in continuing to do it as long as the child has a healthy diet.”

Again with the “no harm”. No one has suggested harm, but the fact that you mention this in the negative as well as with the caveat that the child has a healthy diet (implying it’s not good for those without a healthy diet when in fact that’s the group who benefits most from it) suggests you view it as a negative. I can think of no other reason for the phrasing.

“If a child is being breast fed until eight, this may make them overly dependent on their mother. However if they are being breast-fed at four there is no harm in this.”

What are you basing this distinction on? What research? I ask because there is none that suggests a problem or “over dependent” behaviour at 8, 7, 6, or 5. When a child weans is up to the child and mother. Trying to scare moms into thinking something bad will happen is unfair and unfounded.

“I support women who want to breastfeed and would never wish to discourage anyone from doing so.”

Except write comments like the above and retractions like this that continue to place breastfeeding in a negative light and promote inaccurate information?

 


[1] Davis MK, Savitz DA, & Graubard AI.  Infant feeding and childhood cancer.  The Lancet (1988); 332: 365-368.  (For more information and a far more detailed analysis, see http://evolutionaryparenting.com/two-bs-and-the-big-c/)

[2] Bartick, Melissa, and Arnold Reinhold. The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis. Pediatrics 2009; 125: 1048-56.

[3] Goldman AS.  Immunological components in human milk during the second year of lactation.  Acta Pediatrica Scandinavia 1983; 72: 461-2. (To read more on the immunological components in breast milk, see http://kellymom.com/nutrition/milk/immunefactors/)

[4] Dewey KG. Nutrition, Growth, and Complementary Feeding of the Breastfed Infant. Pediatric Clinics of North American 2001; 48.

[5] Reau NR, Senturia YD, Lebailly SA, Christoffel KK.  Infant and toddler feeding patterns and problems: normative data and a new direction.  Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 1996; 17: 149-53.

[6] http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detwean.html (A summary by Dr. Dettwyler on her anthropological work looking at weaning times in humans and other primates)

[7] Montague A & Matson F. The Human Connection. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

[8] Sigal JJ, Perry JC, Rossignol M, & Ouimet MC. Unwanted infants: Psychological and physical consequences of inadequate orphanage care 50 years later. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (2003); 73: 3-12.

[9] Diamond J.  The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  Penguin Group: New York, NY, 2012.