Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Breastfeeding: True or False? (Test Yourself)

Test your understanding of facts about breastfeeding.

The important human function of breastfeeding is the subject of many myths and misunderstandings. A fascinating meld of biological and behavioral events, it's worth the attention of everyone interested in early development, even those who will not be participating at the adult end. Test your knowledge of breastfeeding by reading these "true or false?" questions.

1. Breastfeeding helps the baby resist infectious diseases. True or false?
Very true! Although babies are born with a supply of antibodies they got from their mothers' immune systems, those antibodies can only protect against diseases the mother had already been exposed to, not exposure to new diseases after the birth. In addition, those antibodies will have diminished by the time the baby is about 8 months old, a point at which infants do not yet do a good job of making their own antibodies. The nursing mother acts as an "auxiliary immune system" to her infant. She supplies more of the antibodies she already had, and if the nursing pair are exposed to a new disease, the mother's efficient immune system goes to work to produce antibodies and pass them on to the baby in her milk. What if the baby is exposed to something, and the mother not exposed to it? Don't worry, she will be exposed quickly, because the physical intimacy of nursing (and other infant care) means she will come into contact with the baby's mucus, urine, and feces.

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Do note that the baby can still use this kind of help toward the end of the first year. Babies who live in clean conditions, with modern food supplies and access to modern medicine, are less affected by a lack of breastfeeding, but those living in primitive conditions may die of infections that could have been prevented by breastfeeding.

2.Nursing mothers need to eat a lot more than usual. True or false?
It depends on the conditions. If the mother was well nourished during the pregnancy, she has laid down extra fat and extra calcium in her bones, and these will be used to support lactation, so she needs little if any extra food. If the mother is living at a subsistence level, she will need extra calories to compensate for those consumed by the baby. An ounce of human milk has about 20 calories on the average, so you can do the math, considering the amount of milk consumed by babies of different sizes and ages.

The nursing mother does need to drink a lot more fluid than when she is not breastfeeding. Every ounce of fluid the baby takes needs to be replaced. Many nursing mothers automatically go to drink a glass of water before they pick up the baby to nurse, or have a cup of tea while breastfeeding. Traditionally, nursing mothers drank dark beers like porter, which supplied extra fluid and a hefty dose of B vitamins, and gave everyone a nice nap too-- nowadays we tend to frown on this, and certainly this practice would have its dangers if it occurred more than once in a while .

3. You can't breastfeed a baby once he or she gets teeth. True or false?
False. Babies can easily be taught not to bite the nipple, if the mother is vigilant (and believe me, after one bite she WILL be vigilant). Biting and sucking take different jaw movements, and an attentive mother can see when a sucking baby re-adjusts its jaw position in preparation for a chomp. The mother then gently inserts her finger between the baby's jaws, toward the back of the mouth. This breaks the suction, so the baby cannot get any milk, and if he or she bites down, there's not much satisfaction, because those itchy teething gums are in the front. Within 24 hours, the baby will have learned that although you can bite lots of things, you can't bite that nipple-- it just doesn't work.

Nursing mothers really have to teach biting babies not to bite, or their nipples can actually be damaged, and the baby will have to be weaned from the breast.

4. Nursing babies don't like the milk that's flavored by strong-tasting foods their mothers have eaten. True or false?
This is mainly false, with some possible individual exceptions. The taste researchers Menella and Beauchamp fed a group of nursing mothers an all-garlic-flavored lunch, waited a couple of hours, and then timed how long the babies nursed. When they compared this to nursing time after a bland lunch, they found that the babies actually nursed longer when the milk had a garlic flavor.

There may be some individual differences, with particular babies possibly disliking certain flavors. One important point is that when a nursing mother has had a mild breast infection, the milk on that side seems to be a little saltier than usual, and babies may not care for it-- to the mother's frustration, as frequent thorough nursing is a help in clearing up these problems.

 

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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