Nourishing Traditions and breastfeeding

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Disclaimer: this post focuses only on the section on infant feeding in “Nourishing Traditions”, which is just a small part of the book.

As I approached the section on infant feeding in Nourishing Traditions, I was looking forward to a detailed survey of breastfeeding practices in traditional cultures, including perhaps a comprehensive list of foods which are thought to be beneficial for nursing mothers, plus detailed suggestions of milk-boosting diets, meals, beverages etc.

I was disappointed. At the beginning of the chapter, the author says that the importance of breastfeeding your baby “cannot be overemphasized.” However, I felt that the rest of the chapter contradicts this statement by concentrating mostly on recipes for homemade baby formulas, and by providing some advice which is outright detrimental to successful breastfeeding.

Are homemade “natural” formulas better than commercial formulas? Perhaps. Let’s even assume so. But no formula will ever come close to breastfeeding, either in nutritional content or otherwise. Mother’s milk is the food God designed for babies; cow’s milk is the food God designed for calves. It’s as simple as that. Cows’ or goats’ milk protein is unlike the protein in mother’s milk and is less well suited to human infants. Yes, it is possible for a baby to grow up just fine on formula, but on all points – nutritious, emotional and immunological benefits, protection from exogenous diseases, convenience and price – the score of breastfeeding is way higher. Therefore, as I see it, it’s definitely worthwhile to do everything possible to ensure that the baby is breastfed.

The author flatly and unequivocally states that the optimal duration of breastfeeding is “six months to a year”. This essentially means that some babies should be completely weaned as early as six months of age – which is just plain wrong, both according to the current position of the WHO, which states that

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond”

– and according to wisdom of most traditional cultures. As a matter of fact, I find it astonishing that a book which takes such an obvious stance of learning from traditions of various people around the world blatantly ignores the fact that in traditional cultures, breastfeeding normally continues well beyond one year and certainly beyond six months! In the Jewish tradition, the standard length of breastfeeding is two years.

The statement, “remember that babies should be chubby” (page 601) really grated on my nerves. Is there no room for diversity, no role for heredity to play in the baby’s body build? This expectation from two tall lean parents to produce a fat little butterball baby, makes mothers anxious about their milk supply when in fact they have plenty, and causes them to rush to supplement with formulas and artificially fatten up their babies.

When I came to the final page, titled “Tips for Successful Breastfeeding”, I was dismayed to find much of the same counter-productive advice you often hear from doctors whose knowledge on breastfeeding comes close to zero. Yes, good nutrition and proper rest play an important role in maintaining adequate milk supply. But the author neglects to mention that the most important factor in boosting milk supply is nursing on demand, which usually means often. Again, where is the analysis of traditional practices such as attachment parenting, baby-wearing and co-sleeping, which all encourage frequent nursing?

It isn’t that I think everyone should go the attachment parenting way. Parents are perfectly within their right to offer pacifiers and insist that the baby should sleep in their own room from day one. But if we’re talking about optimizing the chances of successful breastfeeding, people should make their choices with open eyes.

How about this: “If you have any qualms or fears about not having enough milk, assemble the ingredients for homemade formula…” not “check if you really have cause for concern”; not “contact a lactation consultant and/or a La Leche League representative”, not “nurse more often.” Prepare to give formula!! According to the author, “having the supplies on hand can be enough to give you the peace of mind that allows your milk to keep flowing”. Well, you know what? This very strongly reminds me of the well-meaning doctors and nurses who tried to persuade us to keep a can of formula at home, “just in case”. Does having formula around help to keep the milk flowing? I’m sorry, but I’m not buying that.

 Supplementing may be necessary sometimes, but it is just about one of the most critical steps towards diminishing milk supply.

And this: “Lack of adequate milk supply sometimes does occur, especially as baby grows and his appetite increases.”  Yes, sometimes during a growth spurt it may seem as though the milk supply is inadequate. However, by nursing more often, eating well and resting, milk supply can usually be increased. Mother and baby are hormonally tuned in to one another. Infant suckling stimulates milk supply. Lack of adequate supply doesn’t just “occur” (it’s maddening that a serious author implies that a basic bodily function like lactation just stops or decreases out of the blue). It has reasons which can often be traced to things like abrupt night weaning, introduction of solids, spending time away from your baby, giving a pacifier, a new pregnancy, etc.

I’m not saying that mothers who couldn’t breastfeed, for whatever reason, should feel guilty. But I do think that authors should feel guilty if their advice might have undermined breastfeeding for thousands of women.

My final conclusion? Eat the apple and spit out the seeds. “Nourishing Traditions” is a fascinating book with lots of insightful material and valuable advice, and it is kept at a place of honor on my shelf and often referred to. However, on this matter of breastfeeding I quite plainly disagree with a lot of what the author has to say.

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14 thoughts on “Nourishing Traditions and breastfeeding

  1. I nursed my daughters for six months, but my granddaughters nursed their children for a year, as did my nephew’s wife. When my children were young mums got six months off, and more if they were nursing. Now, you are lucky to get six weeks at home, nursing or not.

    In America, a year is becoming more common, although I don’t think it is universal, by any means. (I’m in my mid-seventies, so well out of the Nursing Circle.) People are more accepting of it in public, and many places of work have Lactation Rooms, where working mums (and aren’t we all?) can pump milk for the sitter.

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    • Pumped milk is of course better than formula, but pumping does not give milk production the same kind of hormonal boost as actually nursing the baby. Given the importance of breastfeeding and attachment parenting in the early stage, I’d say it’s worthwhile to go to great lengths so that the mother can stay with her baby for at least a year.

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  2. “Nourishing Traditions” has a lot of information in there; if they gave breastfeeding the attention it deserved, it would be way too long. There is a better discussion on breastfeeding and other topics baby in the book “The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care”. I agree that at least a year is good. My mom nursed my younger sister until three, and I will have nursed my child for two years next year.

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    • Settingroots, it isn’t the lack of information I take issue with, it’s the *mis*information. I wouldn’t have minded if she wrote, “breastfeeding is such an extensive topic we can’t cover it in-depth here”; I DO mind advice such as “wean after six months to a year and be ready to whip up homemade formula”.

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      • Okay, I see where you’re coming from, and I agree. Unfortunately, even they seem to be going with the conventional wisdom of “a year and then be done with it.” At least they do promote breastfeeding and have the formula information for those women who have trouble with it.

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  3. Something else to think about – that book was published in 1995. That means the information in the book is 20 years out of date! The understanding of how beneficial breastfeeding is or how long it should be practiced has changed considerably in the last 10 years or so.

    I also live in the US and I don’t know anyone who was able to take a year off of work to nurse and care for a child, though nursing at last in part for 1 year + is getting quite a bit more common. Many have issues due to work schedules or daycares, rather than lack of desire or ability. Personally, I had 12 weeks off work (6 paid, 6 unpaid) but was only able to nurse for a few weeks due to complications both with my physical body and with having given birth to natural multiples. I’m very grateful for formula as it means my children are healthy and well fed.

    Lea

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    • Lea, you are right, Nourishing Traditions has been published a long time ago. However, it regularly undergoes revisions and updates, and I haven’t been able to find out that it has updated its breastfeeding section. I guess my point is this: NT has some great information, but its breastfeeding advice is misleading.

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  4. I too see where you are coming from. As a mother of 8 and someone who has used NT for years I turned to the book when, with my 8th I went dry after a week and my son had failure to thrive (for real, not just what doctors say, because generally I don’t give a hoot what they say). I HAD to supplement and when I read the formula ingredients, I put each one back on the shelf. Thankfully I found Baby’s Only Organic Formula was a huge improvement AND amazingly, available in the big city an hour away. The big hospital also had a SFS (supplemental feeding system ) and I was able to eventually go back to exclusively BF and we made in to 15 months. I have done much longer but given our rough start I was thankful for that much. I guess all that to say all the people I know who use NT have the sense of where to turn for what advice and if you absolutely NEED formula NT has it.

    Have you read the NT baby book? I’m not sure the exact name. I looked through it briefly at the bookstore but felt I had plenty of info elsewhere and in my other books so it wasn’t worth it. But maybe for a new mom who is also new to the NT life style it would be quite helpful.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Ami. Breastfeeding can have its hurdles, but it’s so worth it. I’m glad things worked out for you in the end. No, I’ve never heard of the Nt baby book. Will have to check it out.

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  5. It’s called the Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby and Child Care. My friend gave it to me for my 3rd baby. It’s definitely informative, especially with regard to home remedies for childhood maladies and even a diet to correct major problems. However,some of their philosophy sections are rather, ah, mystical, I guess you’d call it.

    I have breastfed all 4 of mine so far, but I hit a huge snag with my last one (5 months now). When he was about 2 weeks old I developed mastitis and didn’t realize until I was really sick, because the first week or two nursing is painful anyway so I thought the pain was just that when it was infected. Anyway, something about the supply/demand regulator seemed to have “shut off” after that and I couldn’t get my milk up to quite enough no matter how much I nursed. I found the NT formula but it’s like $174 for a month’s supply! The ingredients run out at different rates but it seemed really complicated and expensive, so I found Nature’s One organic formula and it works great. I nurse until there’s nothing left and top up with formula.

    Problem is, I thought I’d be back to exclusively nursing again soon, but he’s been congested to varying degrees for over 3 months, and it’s too far in his sinuses to suction out. The doctor is no help, says there’s nothing you can do about it. Mostly it wasn’t too bad, but lately he’s been snorting and sputtering and breathing through his mouth to the point he can’t breathe and nurse with sufficient suction to even maintain supply let alone increase it. And the bottle is so much easier he doesn’t hardly try anymore once the breast seems emptyish, so of course supply won’t increase. Aaaaarrrrrgh! Can anyone tell me how to clear his poor nose so he can nurse properly?!

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    • Sherri, I truly feel for you. Days of trying to nurse a congested baby have been some of the most difficult ones in my entire experience, but I’ve never gone through such a long challenging period. All I can say is I hope you find a way to relieve your poor baby’s congestion and get him to nurse properly.

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  6. Shalom Anne. Loved you book critique! Agree with all of your views on breastfeeding. Just wanted to share a tip I got from la leche league women back when I was breastfeeding one of my four boys. My son got Thrush. When I took him to his Dr. he said he could paint this antiviral medication in his mouth. However, it would take 4 or 5 days or so to clear up, during which time I would have to stop breastfeeding and use this antiviral medication on myself as well. I was having problems lactating enough milk for my son anyway. As I was sore and it became painful. Yet I knew enough to know that if I wanted to continue breastfeeding, I would have to increase my time doing so! Not stop for almost a week! So I called the local women’s la leche (Spanish word for milk), and they advised I go to the health food store and get some “Acid-oph-ilus” (which is the good probiotic that our immune systems need to fight off viruses and bacteria). They come in capsules and need to be kept refrigerated. They instructed me to open a couple of capsules and slightly wet my finger and dip my finger in the acidophilus powder, then paint my sons mouth inside really well. Top roof, tongue and inside cheeks. Then wash my hands and breasts well and paint the powder all around where my baby latches on to nurse. They advised me to do this diligently before and after each time I nursed. I told them it was too painful for me to nurse again. She told me the pain was only for a few seconds until he got latched on good and that after just a few times nursing the pain would be going away. This was at 8am. My hubby went to get the acidophilus and I used it on us both right away! In about an hour he wanted to nurse. So I took him to me and helped him to latch on quickly! I was so sore and cracked, so it really hurt! But after a minute it stopped hurting so much! Then I had to switch sides and had the same level of pain again! But once he latched on it subsided again! I breastfed him about 3 or 4 more times, being diligent to keep up the handwashing, washing where baby latches on and wiping or painting both myself and my sons mouth well! To my amazement, by that evening around suppertime, I barely felt any pain myself! By the next day I was nearly healed up of all the sore cracks in my skin and my sons tongue had very few white postules left. By the end of the 3rd day we stopped needing to use the acidophilus!

    However, my OB GYN Dr. failed to let me know that if the mom is taking birth control pills, it stifles the ability for the nursing infant to obtain the proper nutrients from mom, in order for baby to thrive and grow! It also helps the mom to cut down on her milk supply! My baby was described with “failure to thrive” syndrome…until it came up that I needed a refill on my birth control pills. That’s when my Dr. told me that, that was most likely the reason for his failure to thrive! However, by then, I had already made the tough decision to start him on formula to try and get him back up to his birth weight. He was born 9.6 pounds! He was down to 6.4 pounds when I finally gave up on breastfeeding. It just really made me angry and still saddens me greatly that Dr’s. seem to just expect that every mother wants the easy way out for caring for her baby! If she uses formula, she can prop baby up with bottle and go about doing other things instead of holding her baby for half an hour or so! Mom also wants others to take turns in feeding, like dad or grandparents, etc. But these Dr s. don’t let them no they can pump their milk into a few bottles and keep in freezer, dated, for up to one year for such occasions! Just thought these couple of tips might be helpful for a breastfeding mom reading your blog posts, or a grandma who’s daughter is struggling with these things, she could help her. Hope it helps someone!

    Be blessed and thanks for your posts on so many current topics!
    Tirtzah

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  7. Yes, agree Anna, they should teach this plus health through nutrition to try first in medical schools! Now if you are in the ER as a result of a vehicle accident, definitely forget about nutrition and go straight to the Medical Field and all of the Technology and medications needed for anesthesia or to control intense pain while running tests, etc.

    However, so much of what we come down with in our bodies is a direct result of not feeding our bodies the good nutritious foods and herbs that the Almighty put upon this earth to keep us healthy and to help heal us from a lot of things! We can not expect to continually eat daily from fast food restaurants and out of pre made boxed and frozen foods with all sorts of added chemicals and preservatives and non organic foods, that have been treated with numerous pestacides, animals which have been grain fed corn and other things such as animal by products, when they were created and meant to only eat grasses, while also being pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones and then expect that we should be healthy! The Almighty never intended for our bodies to thrive on those things!

    This is why our young daughters are going into puberty now at alarming young ages! Some are only 8 or 9 years old when they begin! This is a direct result of the hormones and growth hormones fed to the ranchers animals and chickens in order to have the largest ones with the most weight on them to be sold by the pound! I am in my early 60’s now and I entered puberty at 15 years old! Now our daughters are only half that age! They are not ready to go through it at such a young age! We need to let our daughters be kids and enjoy their childhood for as long as they can! They will already be adults soon enough!

    Hope I didn’t step on any toes? If I did please forgive me! This is just my two cents.

    Tirtzah

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