breastfeeding rocksToday an article in the Daily Mirror in the UK was brought to my attention.  It’s called ‘When Should You Stop Breast Feeding?’ by Dr. Miriam Stoppard.  And for lack of a better term, it’s crap.  It angered me enough that I felt I should use this avenue to actually respond to her article line by line, so here we go (Dr. Stoppard’s comments in italics)…

There’s no keener fan of ­breast-feeding than me. I always advocate breast milk as the perfect food for babies from birth to weaning.

Wow – that’s quite the statement – no keener fan, eh?  Given that I’ve actually read the rest of your piece, I’m going to call bullshit on that one.  In fact, based on what’s written next, I’m going to question you even calling yourself a fan of breast-feeding.  But of course, if you come out and say that, I’m sure everyone will disregard what you have to say next, so of course you’ve got to pull this little nugget out, no matter how disingenuous it is.

For years, we’ve followed the World Health Organization guideline that where possible babies should be breast-fed for six months.

Well that’s good.  After all, the World Health Organization bases its guidelines on research based evidence and practice, examining factors such as physical health and emotional health of those involved (though admittedly with a focus on physical health).  As someone who’s supposedly a huge fan of breast-feeding, I would hope that you supported and followed these guidelines (which, btw, are six months of exclusive breastfeeding and then breastfeeding more generally for 2 years or more).

Recently, the Institute of Child Health put forward the case for mixed feeding from four months.

I went to their site and while I couldn’t find anything specific to that, I trust your statement.  After all, the Institute of Child Health is based in a hospital with research focused on certain aims.  However, what was truly interesting was that when I checked out their “recent publications” section, the only thing remotely close to this topic was from 2011.  I also couldn’t find any media releases on such a topic, so I’m going to assume you’re speaking of this 2011 BMJ paper.  In the realm of science, it’s not exactly “recently”, but you’re behind on your reading and I suppose I’ll let that slide.  So let’s look at what this article found:

  • No nutritional deficits or problems outside of iron for children breastfed six months versus four (of course, the data was based on US studies in which cords are routinely clamped early during birth which has been found to be one of the greatest predictors of iron deficiency – but let’s ignore that little problem and the other studies that all suggest there is no iron deficiency based on breastfeeding status).
  • Lower infection rates for children breastfed six months versus anything less.
  • Possible evidence of gluten allergies if gluten isn’t introduced between four and six months (though based on suggestions of when to introduce gluten with no control for breast versus formula feeding).
  • No long term (6.5 years) effect of breastfeeding for blood pressure, cognition, atopy, and dental carries.

So even though these doctors questioned the multiple studies that found lower infection rates in Western countries, they didn’t question the studies that found iron deficiency (and didn’t acknowledge the link to cord clamping), nor did they question the one study on gluten intolerance that had no examination of breast feeding, but was based on wheat introduction recommendations for all babies, regardless of what was followed and who followed them.  Yeah, great science for recommendations.  Regardless, their evidence hardly suggests any problem with the six month suggestion.

I’m with them. Many mothers wean their babies around four months anyway and in the Third World it’s often an economic necessity.

Ah, so we should do it because it’s just what “many mothers” do (and I assume you’re talking Western moms)!  Even in the “Third World” (isn’t that term so outdated by now?) where it’s done out of an “economic necessity”.  Do you even realize that by stating why it’s done in Developing nations you’re countering your own argument?  It’s done because of money.  Not because it’s best for babe or mom or anyone involved in the breast feeding dyad.  It’s done because they have to.

Plus breast milk often doesn’t deliver the iron needed for a six-month baby.

Except if you delay cord clamp.  Then babies get the iron stores they need and breast feeding becomes a moot point.  Good of you to recognize that.

But if you’re a mum dedicated to ­breast-feeding, when should you stop?

Um… when you and babe are ready?

I’ve spoken to breast-feeding consultants who say breast-feed for as long as possible, quoting the nourishment and protection of breast milk throughout toddlerhood.

I don’t even know what to make of this sentence.  Based on what you’ve previously suggested (and what you’re about to suggest), you must believe these people know nothing because clearly breast feeding offers little benefit even in the first six months and, well, we’ll get to your thoughts on toddlers breastfeeding in a moment… So why throw this in?  Because otherwise this statement should be the only thing left in the article!

For me, the line was crossed when I saw a cover of Time magazine showing a mother standing breast-feeding her four-year-old child who was standing on a chair to reach his mother’s nipple.

Yes, the “line”.  Let’s ignore the sensationalism of the actual cover – the awkward pose, the unnaturalness of the way they were photographed – in order to suggest that that unnatural image should sway one’s intellect.  I’m glad to see you’re able to think so clearly and rationally and not let yourself be swayed by propaganda and journalism focused on selling stories instead of sharing the truth.  Great qualities for a doctor who’s supposed to be knowledgeable and read between the lines.

This mother belongs to the school of extreme parenting where mums breast-feed into late childhood, let their child sleep with them and, as babies, carry them everywhere in a sling.

So according to you, the vast majority of mothers in history and many mothers in other cultures are “extreme”?  Okay, let’s look at the various definitions of “extreme” as an adjective in the dictionary:

  1. of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average: extreme measures.
  2. utmost or exceedingly great in degree: extreme joy.
  3. farthest from the center or middle; outermost; endmost: the extreme limits of a town.
  4. farthest, utmost, or very far in any direction: an object at the extreme point of vision.
  5. exceeding the bounds of moderation: extreme fashions.

In our society, the first definition does fit.  However, in a global and historical context, it would be flipped.  Our current practices would be deemed “extreme” relative to what has been done and is done around the world.  The third and fourth definitions don’t really fit because there’s no spatial allowances when discussing parenting.  The fifth might fit, but I would argue, who wants to parent in moderation?  Aren’t we supposed to jump in with all we’ve got to ensure our children thrive?  But personally I like the second definition so I’m going to assume you’re using that.  Yes, us parents who breastfeed as long as our children want, who sleep with them, and carry them as babies are “exceedingly great”.  So thank you.

The mother on the Time cover believes in letting her child decide when breast-feeding should stop.

Yep, she believes that her child will intuitively know when he’s had enough.  Like all mammals and primates that we’re related to.  Because, after all, pregnancy is the natural weaning stage for many animals (typically after a biological age that mirrors a much longer period in human infancy), but forced weaning at the same stage as we do for infants?  Sorry – you just don’t find that.

I’ve never heard anything so irresponsible.

Really?!  Because I’ve heard of parents letting kids do hard drugs in their house or even sharing with them.  Of leaving young children in the bath alone, unsupervised as their children drowned.  Of dropping their babies into scalding hot water then leaving the house while the child died.  But I don’t know what I was thinking because of course letting your children self-wean is way more irresponsible than any of those actions.

No young child should be asked to shoulder the burden of such a decision.

Last I checked, letting a child self-wean wasn’t asking them to shoulder any burden.  In fact, it’s allowing them to learn about their bodies and share what they’ve learned.  They get a chance to know when they’ve had enough milk – whether it be for comfort or nutrition – and make a decision.  Isn’t that empowering?  In fact, I think it’s one of the first independent steps we can allow a child to make.  Otherwise it’s us telling them what they need, providing them no chance to learn on their own.

If you subscribe to that, which other decisions would you let your child make? To go to nursery or not? To get up in the morning or stay in bed? It’s clearly wrong.

I’m not sure what to say here.  One, your analogies are false alone in that they don’t even equate to breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding is something the child can have control over so long as mom is okay with it (and of course a mom who is not enjoying the experience or suffering from it should look to alternatives and weaning, no one is suggesting otherwise).  Going to the nursery or getting up in the morning are things that simply have to happen for the family to function oftentimes.  But breastfeeding?  Nope.  That is something that is a choice for a particular dyad to make and the decision on who to let make the choice as to when to stop is something that every dyad must decide.  By the way, I wonder what you think about kids who self-wean early?  Like at a year?  Is that okay or should the mother have stopped them earlier?

This doesn’t bother advocates of extreme parenting.

No it doesn’t, thank you for recognizing that in our “exceedingly great” parenting, we are quite happy with our choices.

They know that it would be an unusual child who would reject the breast their mother is offering them.

Well, yes and no.  We know that many children will wean earlier than the average just as some will wean later.  Some of us want to wean earlier but understand that the breast offers our children some control over their food intake, their ability to soothe, and provides them with a sense of comfort other things don’t.  So we follow their lead and watch them learn how to make these decisions themselves.

No. This is about mothers who desire to keep their child dependent on them.

Hmmm… really?  Funny, I breastfeed my 25 month old daughter (and she’s looking to be one to self-wean very late) and I’ve never felt that she was dependent on me beyond the obvious fact that she’s 25 months and thus dependent on me to survive.  But older children?  I know children who are highly dependent on their parents and none of them breastfed late.  I would argue that you keep your child dependent on you by making all the decisions for them, in essence crippling them from being able to function without you over their shoulder telling them what to do.  Breastfeeding doesn’t do that.  In fact, when it’s child-led, breastfeeding is really about the child exerting her/his autonomy in telling the mother what s/he needs.  Isn’t that independence?  Not dependence?

A parent should be encouraging a child to be independent.

Wait – I thought letting a child make a choice was forcing them to “shoulder a burden”.  Now we’re supposed to encourage them to be independent?  What kind of independence are you thinking of them?  But generally, I agree we need to encourage our children to learn independence.  And what better way to teach them independence than to allow them to make choices or participate in choices that are relevant to them?

Extreme parents say it protects their child from “the pain of weaning”.

I’ve not heard that particular phrase, but let’s suppose that’s the only argument (though hopefully by now it’s clearly not).  The “pain” here, I imagine, is the pain of having a choice taken away from you.  Of being told you don’t have a say in something that is central to your life.  Of being forced to be dependent upon the whims and decisions of those around you – giving you no choice nor any freedom to contest such decisions.  And as a parent, I would hope to be able to avoid that pain when possible.  I acknowledge that won’t always be possible and my child will have to adapt, but when I don’t have to force such submission and dependence on my child?  Well, I would like to avoid that “pain”.  After all, I’m not in the process of teaching my child submission to other people, but to be independent.

Far from it being upsetting, most babies offered a mixed diet are happy about it.

And what evidence of “happy” do you have for it?  Because really we’re talking about 4-6 months, which was your original argument before you went off the tracks on late breastfeeding (because really, none of the toddlers are exclusively breastfed).  Are they smiling more?  I can’t find a shred of evidence to suggest such a ludicrous claim.  In fact, I don’t think you could even measure it objectively!

My guide is the appearance of teeth.

Great – and that’s your guide.  Unfortunately what works for you doesn’t work for everyone else, nor should you expect it to.  After all, don’t you want us to be independent and make our own choices?

Nature arranges for them to erupt when a baby needs food that has to be chewed.

First, most babies’ first teeth emerge at six months, so why the problem?  The argument you first presented was that babies should get food before that.  There was no consideration of teeth here.  Second, babies first get one or two teeth.  Not exactly enough to even chew food with, so what are you suggesting?    That when a tooth emerges a baby is capable of chewing food on his or her own?  Really?  Do you understand how chewing works?

That should be when breast-feeding is gently suspended.

Wait – what does gently suspended mean?  Mixed?  Suspended implies giving it up, not mixed with food, but given up.  So a baby with one tooth is suddenly independent, eh?  What about the myriad health benefits of including breastfeeding (even if not exclusively) up to two years?  The effects on cancer, other infections, health care costs, etc.?  Especially as a baby can still nurse with a tooth.  Just as they can drink other liquids as well – just because we have teeth doesn’t mean we give up anything that doesn’t involve teeth.

Frankly I have to admit that I’ve rarely read such an incoherent, illogical, and frankly irrelevant piece masquerading as advice to parents.  Despite having read it through several times and breaking it down sentence by sentence, I still don’t quite know what your point was at the end of the day except to try and convince parents that breastfeeding needs to stop earlier than they’re doing it, regardless of when that is.  But even that I’m not sure of.  For someone who started out saying she was an advocate of breastfeeding, you certainly have a funny way of showing it.  I can only hope all parents can see your piece for what it is – nothing.