Hey Mommypotamus! I’d like you to write about your view on breastfeeding (including tandem) and how a lot of WAPF members have differing opinions on the subject. I know, for me, this is a hot topic. I do not agree that the homemade formula is better than human milk and I believe in full term breastfeeding.
~ Michelle M.
Hot topic indeed! Sandrine, my friend and the founder of Nourishing Our Children, unintentionally ignited a firestorm on Facebook by mentioning this topic and followed up with this post. Though I agree with her points on child spacing and think she has done an amazing job generating respectful discussions on so many hot topics, I think some misconceptions about full-term breastfeeding and tandem nursing are unnecessarily polarizing our traditional food community. Before I get into that, though, let me tell you how I came to be a tandem-nursing mama.
The Blowoff Class That Changed My Life
Of all the things I planned for my junior year, hashing out weird breastfeeding dreams in my campus coffee shop was NOT one. But there I was, head spinning from a Tuesday night blowoff class innocuously titled “Study of the Family,” which according to my conservative Baptist college would most likely include a “right” way to do things, some checklists, and some dire warnings, yada yada yada.
She looked the part, my beautiful professor with raven black hair and bright pink lipstick. Diminuitive but captivating, exuding graciousness and love. Perfectly Baptist. Perfectly almost perfect – except she was about to wreck my life.
Not That It Was Worth Saving
I was your typical marketing success story:
What are breasts for? To fill out a Victoria’s Secret bra, of course!
What is childbirth like? Horrific. Avoid if at all possible, but if you must have the experience, be as drugged as legally allowable.
That was me, folks. And then I read ‘the book’. Our Babies, Ourselves is like the National Geographic of parenting. It’s a grand tour of child-raising practices around the world – the !Kung of the Kalahari desert, the hunter-gatherer Ache of Paraguay, the Gusii of Kenya, the Japanese, and us.
I was pretty shocked by the contents: The average age of weaning in these cultures is between TWO and FOUR? Mothers supplementing their pregnancy diet with armadillo fat and insect larvae? Yowsers. Equally surprising, though, is how traditional cultures view our parenting styles.
When Gusii mothers in southwestern Kenya were shown a videotape of middle-class American mothers with their babies,” said Meredith Small, an associate professor of anthropology at Cornell, “the Gusii mothers were shocked.”
Why did that American mother on the tape ignore her baby’s cries? Gusii mothers asked. Why do American babies sleep alone in small beds with bars, in their own rooms?¹
Why DO we do that? The !Kung’s respond to a crying or whimpering baby in 10 seconds on average while we fight our instincts because “studies indicate” we should let them work it out? Is this a sign that we handed parenting over to the “experts” just like we handed food over to “nutritionists” and food manufacturers? I think so. Co-sleeping is not for everyone. And honestly, there are many times my son has cried because he wanted attention I couldn’t give at the moment, but there is wisdom in the insights of these cultures.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying traditional societies are little utopias that get EVERYTHING right while we do EVERYTHING wrong. Personally I don’t want to live in a polygamous society (which the Gusii are). And though it is not unethical to eat insect larvae I’d rather not do that either. But those things aside there is a lot of to be learned here.
And That, Friends . . .
Is how a little class on ethnopediatrics changed the entire trajectory of my life. I was still **not** going to have kids, but if I did, I’d be a full-term breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, traditional culture mama. Finding traditional foods a few years later was the proverbial icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks these two perspectives are as compatible as I do. When I asked Rami Nagel of Healing our Children, which teaches about indigenous child rearing methods, to comment on this he gave this reply: “Weston Price only made one small comment on traditional child raising practices related to the kindness of the parents:
I have been continually impressed with
the great infrequency with which we ever hear a
primitive child cry or express any discomfort
from the treatment it receives”
Great observation, Rami. Thank you! The peacefulness Dr. Price describes reminds me of an old Psalm, which says “But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:2). Does this ancient Hebrew description surprise you? Doesn’t the word “wean” typically conjure visions of an angst-ridden power struggle? It shouldn’t.
“The Hebrew word for wean is gamal, meaning “to ripen.” In ancient times, when children were breastfed until two or three years of age, it was a joyous occasion when a child weaned.* It meant the child was filled with the basic tools of the earlier stages of development and secure and ready to enter the next stage of development. A child who is weaned before his time may show anger, aggression, habitual tantrum-like behavior, anxious attachment to caregivers, and an inability to form deep and intimate relationships. We call these traits diseases of premature weaning.”
Dr. Sears: “Weaning” (emphasis mine)
Okay, I am not claiming that children who don’t nurse into toddlerhood are maladjusted in any way. Nursing is one among MANY ways to nurture a growing child. Just as there is no single “sacred food” shared by traditional cultures, there is no one activity that can claim to be the “right” thing for every family. But what about families that intuitively feel this is the right path, yet feel concerned that they will be doing a disservice to their growing baby?
Here’s What I Think . . .
As evidenced in the recent documentary Babies, there ARE traditional cultures that practice full-term breastfeeding/tandem nursing and produce gorgeous, well-structured babies. A lovely example of this is the little Namibian beauty Ponijao, who is tandem nursing with her older brother.
Second sibling syndrome is clearly not an issue here, indicating that breastfeeding while pregnant does not lead to de facto nutritional deficiencies for baby.
Below is an example of tandem nursing from one of the tribes greatly respected by the Weston A. Price Foundation, the Inuit Eskimos. According to tradition most Inuits did not tandem nurse, but they did breastfeed their daughters for six years and their sons for seven. In other words, weaning at 6-12 months is not a traditional practice.
And this one, though it’s origins and specifics are unknown, speaks to the prevalence of this practice within traditional cultures.
Would the real food community benefit from inquiring more about breastfeeding practices from these cultures, learning of any “taboos” they have, and most importantly studying how they rebuild a mother’s nutritional stores within the context of a full-term breastfeeding/tandem nursing relationship? Should we consider the benefits of ecological breastfeeding to naturally space babies? I think so!
Like anything, I believe there are “best practices” for tandem nursing that include an INCREDIBLY nutrient-dense diet and optimal child spacing. But a huge part of the controversy surrounding this issue, I believe, is a misunderstanding about how much older babies nurse. In my own experience, nursing a toddler is far less involved than nourishing a newborn. Katie was two when I became pregnant with Micah. Due to fluctuating hormones and discomfort I limited our nursing sessions to about five minutes at naptime and bedtime. There were exceptions, of course, when she skinned her knee or nursed through an illness because she couldn’t keep solids down. (Side note: I have never found it possible to reason a sick toddler into drinking water or taking food, but have never had them refuse to nurse. Without this option I know of one illness in which we most definitely would have had to take her to the hospital for IV fluids to combat dehydration. And if you’re wondering why my healthy kids get sick, read this!)
Though it does continue to play a supportive role in nutrition and immune support, the primary benefit I personally experienced in nursing a 2-3 year old is the continued emotional bond. Katie was down to nursing just a few minutes a day when her brother was born, but I believe her sense that her “birthright” was still open to her did wonders for overcoming feelings of displacement and jealously.
How Did This Affect My Son’s Nutrition?
When Micah was finally born my midwives made a big hullabaloo over how well-nourished my placenta was. At 41.5 weeks it showed very little sign of calcification and it was HUGE. “Most placenta’s are about as thick as a pancake,” Christy told me, “yours is like a t-bone steak.” Wahoo!
Also, due to the difficulty of my labor my midwives were expecting me to hemorrhage. I didn’t. They credited it to the optimal nutrition I’d received.
But here’s the rub: Micah’s palate is not as “perfect” as Katie’s according to cranio-dental structural standards. Don’t get me wrong – he’s PERFECT to me, but this post is about the impact of nutrition on formation and development. So, in the interest of full disclosure I want to acknowledge this fact and share something that I believe sheds light on a possible reason for the difference. During the first few weeks of my pregnancy with Micah I experienced something so emotionally devastating that I nearly lost him. Stress of this kind can temporarily impair the ability of the placenta to deliver nutrients. If that happened at a key stage of development – like when his overall structure was being formed – it could explain certain things. Or it could be that his tongue tie restricted normal muscle function that helps develop the jaw – or the fact that he got stuck in the birth canal for so long and we just started taking him to a cranio-sacral therapist because his jaw is out of place – or it could just be that he has a different growth trajectory – or it could be that my “genetic momentum” is not as strong as the women in these traditional cultures and needed time to rebuild between pregnancies – or, or, OR!
Honestly, I don’t have all the answers when it comes to this. But with Dr. Price’s research and the emerging field of ethnopediatrics I am confident we can get things sorted out.
Okay, You Convinced Me. But It Gives Me The Oogies!
That’s okay. Eating fish eyes and cow brains gives me the oogies but I know that’s because of my cultural bias. I’m working on it, though. Seven years ago I couldn’t order chicken wings because the bones grossed me out and now I make stock every week. Sometimes it’s worth it to embrace new things.
When I asked Rami his thoughts on the subject, he sent some very thoughtful comments that I’ll leave you with.
Breastfeeding while pregnant or nursing is the mother’s choice. The mother must listen to herself. She is the ultimate authority when it comes to her children. Maybe women have two breasts for this reason?
Life doesn’t usually deal us ideal circumstances. Having twins is probably not ideal, but it happens. Likewise, if there was a large amount of child spacing, say 4-6 years, then the mother would not need to breastfeed while pregnant. Perhaps that is ideal. But one has to be very careful not to be judgmental or critical and say a mother is wrong to breastfeed while pregnant, or to tandem breastfeed just because it MIGHT not be ideal. Because hardly anything in this world is completely perfect. I certainly don’t see the harm in it if the mother wants to and has enough milk.
She will simply produce more milk in the case of two children. Her nutrition will be adequate if she has good digestion. She will just be hungrier and eat more food. If she does not have good digestion, and lacks enough breastmilk then tandem breastfeeding or breastfeeding while pregnant won’t work.
The mother must choose what is best for her children. And giving a baby more breastfeeding time, even if it comes at a minor nutritional expense, is going to be worthwhile. Theories about right and wrong are not a replacement for her own wisdom. Breastfeeding is the embodiment of a mother’s love. The child gets more than nutrition from breastmilk. He gets love. That is why women’s breasts are at their heart. Personally I support tandem breastfeeding and breastfeeding while pregnant, if the mother is healthy and is eating a nourishing diet. This is because the intimate contact of breastfeeding makes the world good, and pleasurable for the infant.
Just a side note: I am no longer a tandem nursing mama. Katie “ripened” according to Hebrew tradition in her third year of life. No angst. No power struggles. Just a celebratory cup of chamomile tea before bed.
Thanks for your question, Michelle!
What do you think?
* Rami Nagel says 2-3 years is probably a minimum. The Inuit Eskimo’s breastfed until 6 for girls and 7 for boys. In Mongolia, there’s an oft-quoted saying that the best wrestlers are breastfed for at least six years (source). And here are some more cultures that breastfed beyond for 3-7 years