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When breast is no longer best
About the author: 

With this issue I'm launching a small column of my own on these pages, just so as to be able to have a personal word with you every month

With this issue I'm launching a small column of my own on these pages, just so as to be able to have a personal word with you every month. (This, by the way, is an old photo. I promise a more up to date one soon, something that more accurately reflects the haggard look of an editor cum mother.)

Speaking of motherhood, no doubt you've read the newspaper headlines about the study recently published by the British Medical Journal purporting to show a link between long term (more than one year) breastfeeding andheart disease in later life (7 March 1992). The study, conducted by the Medical Research Council, showed an elevated risk both among those who'd had bottle feeding from the start and those still on the breast a year later. Those who'd been breastfed but only for six months, had the best chance for a sturdy ticker, according to the study.I have more than professional interest in the subject since my daughter at 2 still takes the odd sip morning and evening.

Researchers examined some 5000 men in Hertfordshire born in the early part of the century for whom information on infant feeding had been recorded, and also for their social histories, smoking and drinking habits, and, of course, deaths.

What they forgot to do was to investigate dietary habits and many other environmental factors in other words, the men's lifestyles. Or their family's histories of heart disease. The fact that a relationship was supposedly shown between heart problems later and a start that included either bottlefeeding alone or long term breastfeeding seems to bear out the study'spoor design.

As active birth pioneer WDDTY panel member Michel Odent points out, the only women who breastfed for more than a year at the early part of the century were poor and possibly less well nourished than more affluent individuals.

The researchers say that breast milk has higher cholesterol concentration than modern formula milk does. But children growing up in 1920 who were weaned under a year (ie, the "ideal" group) would have been placed on cow's milk, which has an even higher cholesterol and fat content than human milk.

Even though so ill designed, this sort of study will only feed what can only be described as a deepseated public antipathy to the sight of any but the tiniest baby at the breast. I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that many doctors and researchers are unnerved by breastfeeding. How else to explain the many anti nursing statements that appear in this study ? Or the idiotic advice many women are often given? When my daughter was born the hospital pediatrician told us to start her on orange juice (one of the big five among allergens) a few weeks after birth so that she wouldn't get "bored" with breast milk.

The bottom line is that we are so removed from our biology that we haven't a clue anymore about what's either natural or good for our babies. No research has yet convinced me that anyone in the West knows anything conclusive about cholesterol or breastfeeding. That being the case, I only feel comfortable taking my cue from nature ie, what my daughter says that she needs. Virtually every tribal culture tends to feed partially for several years. When the children no longer need it, they stop. Perhaps we ought to begin our studies by asking the experts on this issue. Only three year olds need apply.


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