The Myth of “Breastfeeding is Optional”
Breastfeeding is optional? Not for baby, and not if you understand the facts.
Posted Jan 24, 2016
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.
Maureen Minchin has an excellent critique.
Rather, in the mistaken account, breastfeeding, a practice over 30 million years old, containing thousands of ingredients, is supposed equivalent to providing a “scientific” formula with a couple of dozen of non-human ingredients (only in 2014 did the Food and Drug Administration finally start to regulate it).
How is the judgment 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 but only partial, limited studies looking at a couple of outcomes over a short period of time. It turns out that whomever 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 there are multiple sources of knowledge, 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 baby birds 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 as a characteristic. Apes have on average four years of breastfeeding. Humans, as the most immature of apes at birth (25% of brain developed 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.
Subnote: Some people mistakenly think that relying on nature's "experiments" is a "naturalistic fallacy." A naturalistic fallacy is when a person takes a fact, something that "is," and makes it a "should" (e.g., females bear babies so females should bear babies). Taking a bunch of facts together, converging evidence, is not the same thing as the so-called fact-value distinction as there are multiple points of evidence used to support the "should."
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. The World Health Organization recommends at least 2 years of breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is what helped our ancestors survive, thrive and reproduce.
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 (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). 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 needs of family life too.
We also have the implicit assumption, propped up by misguided limited-experiment-focused science, that babies don’t need so much from moms. This is back to the ‘children are resilient’ myth that governs (mis)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)
- Minimize the needs of babies (how little can we get by with providing them?)
Those who argue against breastfeeding may also lack motherly feelings due to experienced trauma, inherited epigenetic effects of trauma from their mothers, or medical interference through baby-mother unfriendly practices that undermine bonding and breastfeeding success. 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.
Note: In a reply to comment below about the lack of evidence for good health outcomes from advocating breastfeeding, I said that one must remember that most hospitals in the USA undermine baby health, in multiple ways, including giving sugar water (to keep them quiet in nurseries) and formula (for no medical reason). These populate the gut (the primary site of the immune system) with pathogenic bacteria, which lasts a lifetime without lengthy breastfeeding intervention. In 2011, the Surgeon General reported that only 4% of USA hospitals were baby (read: breastfeeding) friendly. See the 2011 report here. The last I heard it's at 12%.
Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.
Konner, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood: The !Kung and others. In B. Hewlett & M. Lamb (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 19-64). New Brunswich, NJ: Transaction.
Konner, M. (2010). The evolution of childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Additional Posts about Breastfeeding, Breastmilk, Infant Formula
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:
WHEN I WRITE ABOUT HUMAN NATURE, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):
Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.
WHEN I WRITE ABOUT PARENTING, I assume the importance of the Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs to avoid distressing a baby, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.
All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at multiple aspects of psychosocial and neurobiological wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.
My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works (see my Website to download papers):
Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003
Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.
Also see these books for selected reviews:
Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)
Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (W.W. Norton)