Baby Motherhood Pause for Thought

In search of balance


I was pottering around the internet earlier this week when I stumbled on the start of a Twitter squall, as the virtual reality wind picked up and the dark clouds gathered overhead.   And there at the eye of this impending storm was a screenshot of a quote, given by a medical professional and published by Closer magazine.

Dr Christian Jessen had been quoted as saying:

“Breast milk boosts a baby’s immune system, but only for the first six months. After that it has no effect. As long as the child is having a healthy diet, there is no harm in breastfeeding. But breastfed older children risk becoming psychologically dependent on the mother. This could result in behavioural problems as they grow up.”

As waves heightened and the breakers started to roll into his twitter feed he claimed that his comments had been taken out of context, and Closer provided not exactly a correction, but a longer version of this esteemed doctor’s views, apparently designed to reassure us that Dr Christian is pro-breastfeeding (by saying “I support women who want to breastfeed”) which somehow utterly fails to do anything other than reaffirm the impression that this gentleman does not believe that there is any benefit in breastfeeding beyond six months, and smacks just a smidgen of someone wielding a large shovel in an ever-growing hole.

There are so many points that I would like to take up with the good doctor, both from the perspective of a nursing mother of a 13-month old (the utter disregard of the longstanding advice of both the World Health Organisation and the NHS, both of which recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and neither of which declare an arbitrary stop date, without referencing any source material or underlying study) and from a professional constructor of arguments (claiming to have ignored said current advice on the basis that it might change is both lazy journalism and just plain embarrassing – as well as being wrong; the advice hasn’t changed in the 4+ years I’ve been pregnant, nursing or both so to suggest it is “always changing” is rather over-egging the pudding).

But that isn’t actually my point.

I think it’s a real shame that someone who has medical authority in the public eye is either so very ill-informed about something on which he is passing judgment, or so very out of control of what is being written in his name (or both).  A shame because try as we might, it seems such an uphill task to get accurate, non-inflammatory, non-judgemental support and advice about nursing out there in the public domain.

Nursing can be wonderful, natural, connect you to your inner earth mother, and be everything you ever dreamt it could be.  It can also be hard work, frustrating, painful and leave you feeling exhausted and utterly touched-out.  And sometimes it just plain doesn’t work, however much you want it to.  I feel so very fortunate that both times my babies and I have learnt how to do this nursing thing, and I’ve never needed to give them anything else.

I would love it if breastfeeding was the default setting; the automatic instinctive answer to how to feed your baby, but that running with that there would be an acknowledgement that there can be very excellent reasons for bottle feeding.  At the end of the day, isn’t it a wonderful thing that there is choice, that we have a back up plan?

Of one thing I am certain. Guilt trips are never going to hack it.  Not for the struggling new mum who can’t work out why it feels like so much hard work sat surrounded by posters and propaganda of smiley happy babies guzzling away as their perfectly rested mamas sit back in a tidy house wearing clean clothes dreaming of unicorns, rainbows and sparkle, while her inner demon tells her it’s supposed to be easy, it’s supposed to be natural, if it hurts she must be doing it wrong.  And not for the mum still nursing her toddler, who knows in her heart of hearts that this is right for her child, but can’t help blanching at the surprised glances and the unspoken “surely she’s too old for that” when her baby cuddles in.

At the end of the day we’re all just trying to do the best for our babies (and for the record Dr Christian, that means aiming a lot higher than doing no harm).  Even if we can’t change the media’s perceptions and representations, and can’t prevent them saying stupid things, we can, and do, come together as a community of mothers in open hearted acceptance, from bottle feeding from the get go to nursing an eight year old and all the colour and variation in between.  And if we can do that, then to misquote Dr Seuss, we might just move mountains.

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  • Steph 25/01/2014 at 8:42 am

    Oh silly silly man. I do love watching ignorant people like that backpedaling furiously by saying it was taked out of context. Ummm nope, not really. Ignorant health professionals are dangerous. I worked hard to breastfeed, making it to almost 6 months but if I could I would feed for as long as my baby needed milk (although I might draw the line at 2 or 3yrs old) and not feel the least bit guilty about it.

    • Carie 25/01/2014 at 10:45 pm

      Good for you – I don’t think I’d ever want to make someone feel guilty about feeding their baby – and yes the backpedalling was so bad it was almost funny!

  • lucy 25/01/2014 at 8:52 am

    Love this Carie. So very well written. It’s a sad fact but I have kind of got used to bad and misguided articles when it comes to breastfeeding now. Sadly it would seem that the press in this country seems far more interested in continuing to mystify breastfeeding rather than making a positive example. But you’re right, we all want to do far more than “do no harm” for our children, and so we just have to keep making the decisions that are right for us and ignore these professionals when we know they are wrong! x

    • Carie 25/01/2014 at 10:49 pm

      It’s such a shame isn’t it, it should be so easy to get accurate supportive advice out there, and I know the NHS and the WHO are trying, it just gets lost in all the sensationalism.

  • Katie 25/01/2014 at 7:46 pm

    Well said carie – i have never trusted much of what comes out of that mans mouth anyway. He is rather strange and has very odd hair. TV doctors just don’t really tend to sit right imo.

    • Carie 25/01/2014 at 10:52 pm

      He’s not really crossed my radar before (if I’m going to watch doctors on telly they should be George Clooney), I just stumbled on his comments and thought “really! why? why would you say that?”. Ordinary doctors don’t claim to know everything about everything, it’s strange the TV versions should isn’t it!

  • Preeta 27/01/2014 at 1:03 am

    Thank you for speaking out about this! I am a (very) long-term breastfeeder. I almost never admit this in public, but I still breastfeed *both* my girls, and the older is 4 and a half. She only feeds twice a day, sometimes not even that, but it is pure nonsense that long-term breastfeeding makes children “psychologically dependent” on their mothers in some mysterious negative way. If anything, it makes for more assured, secure, confident children, from what I have seen, although I am not of the you-must-breastfeed-or-your-children-will-be-delinquents camp either — I don’t judge others for *not* breastfeeding, so I refuse to allow myself to be judged for breastfeeding beyond the “normal” limit. It is so ludicrously unscientific to blame vague “behavioural problems” on long-term breastfeeding, when in fact any behavioural problem one could choose to identify in any child, breastfed OR bottlefed, surely cannot be traced to a single cause! I’ve seen perfectly happy, well-adjusted children who were bottlefed; I’ve also seen perfectly happy, well-adjusted children who were/are breastfed for years. There is no evidence that societies that breastfeed for 5 years or more produce children who never learn to function autonomously — in fact, those are some of the most autonomous, independent children anthropologists have encountered (see, for example, the work of the American anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler). Plus, need I point out that human beings are social animals, and that we are ALL therefore pyschologically dependent on each other, on some level? People need other people! How is this a bad thing?!? At any rate, it sounds like this Dr. Jessen should actually do some research before airing his theories.

    • Carie 27/01/2014 at 9:23 am

      Thank you – and good for you for nursing your girls regardless of age. My Kitty self weaned a few days before her second birthday, probably because I was pregnant with Elma and I have no regrets about keeping going so long – despite the occasional funny looks, but nor would I want anyone to feel bad because they didn’t – it’s all about there being support for whatever is best for your baby and your family.

  • Katie @mummydaddyme 27/01/2014 at 4:04 pm

    A very well written post Carie- and I feel sometimes that in the eyes of professionals and the media, you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t. I fed Mads till 11 months and I am still currently feeding LL twice a day. It’s been incredibly hard at times, especially in the beginning but I have loved the bond with them both. It makes me sad to think that these debates still exist- why can’t we all just do what we think is best for us and our children? x

    • Carie 28/01/2014 at 10:06 pm

      That’s the crazy thing in my mind – we just can’t win can we!