Sunday, November 11, 2012

When mainstream babycare gurus go bad

I should have known better, really. A few weeks back I cobbled together a list of "No-BS Breastfeeding Resources" comprising various books, websites and blogs which I reckoned were "credible, science-based and reasonably representative of how most of us actually mother." On the list I included Robin Barker, author of the bestselling Australian book Baby Love. I had not, I should confess, read any books by Barker, but trusted that they were likely to be sound, since they had been recommended by more than one person I respected.

So I open up Facebook one day and lo and behold, there is an article by Barker, "Duration not initiation is the real breastfeeding battle," which deplores the fact that according to a recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report, only 15% of women in Australia are exclusively breastfeeding by the six-month mark.

Now, before we all get into a flap about Oh My God Nobody's Doing Any Breastfeeding... here's the thing. The AIHW defines "exclusive breastfeeding" as nothing by mouth except breastmilk and certain medical supplements: no water, no solids and not even a single bottle of formula. Given those criteria, I'm actually astonished that the figure at six months is as high as 15%. I don't think I know any mother who would meet those standards. Not me, for a start: Little Seal had a bottle of sugar water in hospital (soothing for her and reassuring for me, as I was panicking about dehydration) and started small amounts of solids from four-and-a-half months, based on my own carefully researched decision. Now, I kind of resent the implication that these actions of mine now turn me and my child into some kind of Official Public Health Problem; yet when we take "exclusive breastfeeding to six months" as a barometer for correct infant feeding practices, that is the inevitable implication. The ridiculous thing is that in Oz, the pendulum in recent years seems to have swung back towards encouraging small tastes of food from four months or so in an effort to reduce food allergies, a point made by several commenters on the Barker article. (By the way, if a mere nip of sugar water negates the "exclusive breastfeeding" label, does this mean that we also have to be terribly careful when washing our babies' faces, lest a few drops of water make it into their mouths? How many cubic milliliters of water represent the level that breaches the "exclusive breastfeeding" threshold? How about when your baby starts putting their hands in their mouth and there's dust and detritus and cat hair on them--wouldn't that disturb the virgin gut just as much as a tiny bit of rice cereal? We could go on like this all night, really.)

Okay, so that was a bit dodgy. But my jaw really dropped when I saw some of the ideas that Barker floats as possible proposals for increasing the breastfeeding duration of Australian women. Better maternity leave, funding for research into breastfeeding problems and funding for experienced staff to help women... no problem. But "Infant formula in the first six months by prescription only." What?

Now, the formula-by-prescription-only thing comes up regularly in infant feeding discussions, so I really should not have to spell out the reasons this would be a terrible idea, but things like "The government of Iran is not a role model" "Screaming baby, new mother with stitches where the sun don't shine, pharmacy halfway across town" and "Gee, we've run out of formula again. Giving a newborn some cow's milk from the carton isn't that bad... right?" are flashing through my head like visions from some bad dream. Not to mention that whole tedious business about women being able to, you know, control their own bodies and all that. Material written by Barker quite recently on breastfeeding that I have been able to find (this, for example, written in 2004) comes across as eminently sensible, as does Baby Love judging by the Amazon reviews; so seeing her suddenly come out with such an extreme idea does make me start to wonder if (as some parenting bloggers have suggested) we have indeed seen in recent years a hardening of the rhetoric on breastfeeding and a shift towards more extreme positions.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that Barker (who is well into her 70s) is out of touch or starting to lose it a bit. This last thought is one that also occurred to me a few months ago when I came across an utterly bizarre article called When Should You Stop Breastfeeding in the Daily Mirror by Miriam Stoppard--another popular mainstream childcare writer who is now in her 70s and who I had always vaguely assumed represented a fairly sane and sensible voice in the world of infant feeding politics.
"...For years, we’ve followed the World Health Organization guideline that where possible babies should be breast-fed for six months. Recently, the Institute of Child Health put forward the case for mixed feeding from four months. I’m with them. Many mothers wean their babies around four months anyway and in the Third World it’s often an economic necessity. ...The mother on the Time cover believes in letting her child decide when breast-feeding should stop. I’ve never heard anything so irresponsible. No young child should be asked to shoulder the burden of such a decision... My guide is the appearance of teeth. Nature arranges for them to erupt when a baby needs food that has to be chewed. That should be when breast-feeding is gently suspended."
I'm not going to go through a word-by-word commentary on this confused and confusing mess of an article. I would say that when you are actually a babycare writer by profession and this is supposed to be your "area," it shouldn't be too much to expect some basic fact-checking. The WHO actually recommends two years of breastfeeding and six months of exclusive breastfeeding. Throughout the article, Stoppard keeps muddling the two definitions of weaning--"introduction of solid foods" versus "cessation of breastfeeding." A baby who is just starting to have a few teaspoons of food per day is still going to be dependent on breastmilk for most nutrition for many more months; you don't suddenly go from "no solids" to "all solids and no breastmilk/formula." It also makes no sense to say that solid foods should accompany tooth eruption (my grandmother was born with a tooth; should she have had solids from birth?) and in any case, isn't it a bit odd to say that after saying that babies should have solids at four months? Most babies don't get teeth that early. Finally, Stoppard must have led a very sheltered life if allowing a child to self-wean is the most "irresponsible" thing she's ever heard of. I'm sure she does not have a shred of evidence to suggest that this is in any way psychologically damaging, as she claims.

It's a bit rough, really. We have people pressing us in on all sides, telling us that we must breastfeed, but that we're disgusting or irresponsible if we do it for too long. If these pearls of wisdom were coming from an extremist like Dr. Sears or Gina Ford (the British babycare world's Queen of Routine), that would be one thing; when they come from writers who you always vaguely supposed represented the voice of sanity in all things baby-centered, it's a bit of a shock. It certainly points up the difficulty of trying to find and share breastfeeding-related resources that are moderate, science-based and non-judgmental... well, non-judgmental about things that don't matter, anyway. I mean, if you fill your newborn's bottles with a homemade Weston Price concoction of pureed liver and raw egg yolks, I will judge you.

One thing does hearten me though. As we all know, in general, the Comments sections on internet news articles are where crazy people go to die. The Comments sections on these two articles, however, actually defy the odds by being more sensible than the articles themselves, with the majority of commentators pointing out the flaws in Barker and Stoppard's reasoning. Perhaps there's hope for the world of online parenting discussion after all.

In the meantime, the two lessons I'll be taking from this are: a) if you run a blog, don't recommend writers you haven't actually read (blush); and b) if you are a doyenne of the babycare advice world, get your facts correct and think before you write, for God's sake!


  1. The formula by prescription one always gets me. I totally support that breast feeding is best in many ways, but at the end of the day, what really matters is that the baby gets fed!

  2. Inorite? And Iran...? Not exactly the sort of country I would want to be imitating when it comes to respecting women's rights and all that kind of thing. >:(

  3. As a doctor, I'm going to add another to your excellent list of reasons: Most of us signed up for this job because we want to spend our time helping sick people, not being the Parenting Police, and most of us are actually pretty busy doing what we're already doing and aren't overwhelmed with spare time that we're just looking to fill writing extra prescriptions. Just wanted to mention that.

  4. I have read Baby Love and have had enough of breastfeeding BS. While the articles sound nuts the book is not. She has sensible feeding advice (both formula and breast feeding). In her lost recent edition she is recommend parents decide when for solids but some time between 4 and 6 months. Only part I struggled with was comments about child care options.

  5. I actually wrote a follow-up to this post in which I admitted that my comments re: the author of Baby Love were perhaps a little harsh. I do disagree with some of the things she said here, but the book itself is apparently a decent book--for the most part. Can I ask what was the issue with comments on childcare options?

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