That was about it for the science in Time’s story—adequate, if not ample. But the thousands of commentators who responded to the piece made nothing of it. It took half an hour of searching to find this helpful information (relegated to an online sidebar) from BBC health and science reporter James Gallagher:
• No government or international body has a recommended upper age limit on when a mother should stop breast feeding her child
• The World Health Organization (WHO) says there are a range of health benefits for exclusively breast feeding babies for the first six months
• After that the WHO suggests a combination of foods, fluids and breast milk up to the age of two “or beyond”
• Dr Mary Fewtrell, who specialises in childhood nutrition at University College London, said that there isn’t any research into the health benefits of continuing to breastfeed children up until school age
• She said that “even for the health benefits of breastfeeding beyond a year or 18 months, there is little research” and that this was far more a social than a nutritional issue
A much more thorough and fascinating history of the breastfeeding debate appeared in the March issue of Harper’s. The magazine published an essay by Elisabeth Badinter, adapted from her upcoming book about “how modern motherhood undermines the status of women.” Titled, “The Tyranny of Breast-feeding,” it’s an account of the rise in influence of La Leche League, an international organization formed in the late 1950s, which advocates on-demand breastfeeding for as long a child wants.
The essay described how the league slowly but surely won the support of major national and international organizations worldwide, from the American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. And Badinter made no secret of her misgivings about that effort, describing it as an ideological “crusade” for “increasingly dictatorial and restrictive” practices, waged by “breast-feeding militants.”
While acknowledging that “a mother’s milk is perfectly adapted to the child’s digestive system and developmental needs [and that] it reinforces natural immunities and reduces the risk of allergies,” Badinter cast a skeptical eye on the growing list of advantages attributed to breast feeding:
Some studies claim that breast-feeding reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, type 1 and 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, childhood Hodgkin’s disease, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, asthma, even multiple sclerosis. Others have tried to demonstrate that breast-fed children show better cognitive development Some of these advantages—enhanced immunity, for example—require that breast-feeding continue for three to six months. Others have little basis in scientific data.
According to Badinter, “the Society of French Pediatrics has published the most objective report on the subject, pointing out areas of uncertainty and bias.”
That kind of information is useful to readers who know nothing, or next to nothing, about the current medical consensus surrounding parenting, attached or otherwise. Unfortunately, the science discussed in Time and Harper’s was absent from the outcry of the last few days.
A spirited discussion about the latest research on parenting no doubt occurred on parenting blogs and forums, but anybody who is unfamiliar with that corner of the cyberwoods and lacks the inclination to wander in—a reasonable position—would be at a loss. In the mainstream media all anybody seemed to care about as whether or not an attractive young woman suckling her son was too much for the cover of a national newsweekly.
That debate—about the line between effective and exploitative—matters, too, but certainly not as much as the one about how to raise a healthy kid. The critics missed that.