Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Breastfeeding Video banned from YouTube

"Dear Friends --Our humble breastfeeding montage (that received several honors and over 90K views) was deemed "inappropriate" by YouTube and was since banned from their site on November 20. We're calling to action those with an interest in this heated topic. We need your support and voice to send a message loud and clear that this is not acceptable! Please visit our site to see how you can participate. "

Friday, November 16, 2007

Good Genes + Breastfeeding = Smart Baby

In my corner of the world, breast-feeding is not really optional. Among the women with whom I talk about babies and kids, I can't think of anyone I know in my approximate age bracket who didn't try. My friends who quit at three months seemed like rebels. And when I cut off my sons, after more than a year each, I felt a little heartless because I know so many kids who zealously nursed into toddlerhood.
Nursing is cozy and nurturing, not to mention remarkably efficient -- never again will I provide for my children's needs so gracefully (OK, that's not the right word for the pumping part of it). But it can also get a little fanatical. Mothers who adopt children are left out. And when breast-feeding doesn't come easily -- an unusual but real occurrence -- women sometimes go to great and uncomfortable lengths involving all manner of awkward contraptions. They do this because they think that they'll be depriving their babies if they give up as nursing failures. Breast-feeding is supposed to protect against childhood cancer, obesity, allergies, infections and global warming (I made up only the last one). Some of the claims, like a lower rate of infant respiratory infections, seem to hold up; others, like reduced odds of adult obesity, probably don't.
Now there's new evidence about the gold ring of breast-feeding benefits -- extra IQ points. It's a finding with a twist. The researchers report that breast-fed babies get an average IQ advantage of 6.8 points -- a nice step up -- but only if they carry a certain genetic variant. If you've got the gene and your mother nurses you, she is making you smarter. If you don't have the gene, the nursing is for naught, IQ-wise. But since 90% of the population has the genetic variant that conveys the IQ boost, the odds are in the suckler's favour.
This is only one study, and there are lots of other reasons to breast-feed (or not to). But as food for thought, this study has all kinds of goodies. It's a pretty riveting example of a dynamic that scientists call "G x E," for genes times environment -- the notion that it's not nature or nurture that exclusively makes people who they are, but nature interacting with nurture.
The new breast-feeding-IQ study was conducted by the lab of Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt, smart and careful scientists whom I've written about before. Caspi and Moffitt looked at two large groups of kids, one of more than 1,000 from New Zealand and the other of about 2,200 from England. They asked mothers about whether they'd breast-fed via questionnaire. In New Zealand, 57% of the kids were breast-fed; in England, 48%. Then the authors looked at a gene called FADS2. It plays a role in regulating the production of some special fatty acids present in breast milk, which may help spark cognitive development (though there is controversy about this). There are three variants of this gene. Two of them include an allele (the "C allele") that conveys a significant IQ boost -- but only in conjunction with breast-feeding. In other words, if you have the gene but your mother doesn't nurse you, you're a bit dumber than you otherwise would be. If you don't have the lucky allele, you don't get the IQ boost however much mother's milk you imbibe.
Previous studies have also linked breast-feeding to higher IQ, but they generally haven't ruled out the fact that breast-fed kids are also more likely to come from wealthier and better-educated families than formula-fed babies. What has looked like a correlation between nursing and smarts might really have been explained by other more predictable factors. Caspi and Moffitt, however, controlled for the confounding factors of social class and maternal IQ. And they still found a pattern of higher IQs in the breast-fed babies with the C alleles. Nor did the advantage seem related to the mothers' genotypes.
Caspi and Moffitt point out that in the earlier annals of human history, when everyone was breast-fed, "genetic variation in FADS2 could have influenced individual differences in intelligence." In this sense, they say, "It is reasonable to ask whether FADS2 is a 'gene for' IQ." Maybe that helps explain why 90% of the population has the C allele-- if it promotes intelligence, then it should win out in the process of natural selection. From a pro-breast-feeding point of view, this is all kind of lovely. Some babies have a gene that boosts intelligence, but only when it's activated by the delivery of mother's milk, and so, over time, more babies have the gene. Nature and nurture working in tandem, and to a good end.
The new research leads to the question of genetic testing. You could test a child for the C allele, and if she has it, feel even better about nursing her. You'd also feel worse if you can't. And if your baby is in the 10% without the lucky gene variant? You can still nurse, of course, but your rationale would be different -- and wouldn't you feel ripped off by nature's grand lottery, and a little bitter about it, at least on a sore-nipple day?
This is the kind of information we may not really want to have. The sinisterish ramifications are even starker in other research that Caspi and Moffitt have done, in which they've found a G × E relationship for a gene that's linked to depression in connection with an experience of serious trauma, like child abuse. Do we want to know who has this predisposition? (A test already exists.) If you were thinking about adopting a child who might have had some hard experiences, wouldn't you choose the child with the protective variant of the gene over the one without it? And what does that mean for the genetically unblessed kid? If you ran an adoption agency, would you give kids the test?
Questions for the near future, or, really, for now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Why I Still Breastfeed My Four Year Old

Friends may think it's freaky, says Annalisa Barbieri, but why should I stop when it's good for my daughter?
Published: 13 November 2007
In December 2004, I wrote in these pages about how I found myself "still breastfeeding" a 14-month-old, when previously I had viewed "extended breastfeeders" as a bit odd, needy and, frankly, freaky. When I first became a mother, I had envisaged myself as a mother with a clipboard, with me in charge, not the baby. I never expected to be the sort of mother I am now, breastfeeding a four-year-old on demand. I thought I knew myself, but motherhood introduced me to a self I never even knew was lurking.
To pick up where I left off three years ago: at just over a year old, my daughter seemed to be losing interest in breastfeeding. But as it turned out, that was the lull before the storm. Just as she started walking, at 18 months, she started to feed intensively. This is normal: as babies reach major developmental stages, they need to feed more. Whereas she had never been able to tell me when she was hungry as a baby, now she beat her chest with her fists – like Tarzan's Cheetah – to tell me that she wanted milk. And she wanted milk a lot. I'd be lying if I said there weren't times when I wished I'd weaned her. I found it hard, but I was lucky. Far from being isolated, I co-run a pro-breastfeeding website that has lots of long-term breastfeeders as members. I wasn't going through anything others hadn't previously.
From the age of two, my daughter started to switch breasts – that is to say, she would no longer feed on one breast, then sedately take the other. She would switch, sometimes manically, between the two, because she had learnt that the let-down (the flow of milk) is faster if you stimulate the breasts in this way. It was also about this time that she started a habit I find extremely annoying to this day: twiddling. While she fed off one breast she would twiddle the other nipple, as if trying to tune in to a short wave radio station. Again, this was to stimulate the milk so that when she did latch on to the second breast, it was all ready to go.
I found feeding between the ages of two and four quite hard at times. She needed to feed a lot, sometimes 50 feeds a day, although they were quick. When we moved house, her feeding became almost frenzied, as if she thought I would leave her. Docking on to the "mothership" became vitally important. I'm not sure how I would have met her needs so quickly during this time without breastfeeding. And I'm not sure I could have parented during the terrible twos without it: it was like having an entire cavalry at your beck and call. Breasts are a powerful parenting tool.
Despite this, breastfeeding is often blamed for many childhood malaises. Your baby is hungry/ sleepy/won't sleep/colicky/you're tired? Give up breastfeeding! The very thing that can make life easier is jettisoned, purely out of ignorance. Imagine if every time you said you found parenting a little bit hard, someone said, "Put your child up for adoption." It'd be ridiculous, wouldn't it?
No matter how hard I found breastfeeding, however, I couldn't stop, for two reasons. The more knowledgeable I became, the more vital I knew sustained breastfeeding to be. And, second, because it is obvious how much breastfeeding means to my daughter. There's the beauty in feeding an older child: there is no second guessing – she tells me just how important my milk is to her, how it "makes everything better". When she gets a cold, she tells me that she needs my milk to "kill the cough". One night, she started to run a desperately high fever (104) and I had no medicine or way of getting any. I fed her all night; she injected her germs into me while my body made the antibodies she needed and fed them back to her. We both worked through the night and, by morning, she was better, as if the fever had never happened. Knowing that you have the wherewithal to comfort and cure your child within your own body is hugely magical and empowering. The bonuses that breastfeeding gifts you make the not-so-easy times fade into nothing.
Because we don't have a habit of feeding walking, talking children in this country, I stopped feeding my child in public when she got to be about two. I didn't want anyone else's ignorance to negate something she found so comforting. Now, there's a word: comfort. I remember, pre-motherhood, challenging a friend of mine who was breastfeeding her 18-month-old child. "But isn't it just for comfort?" I said. "What's wrong with wanting to comfort my child?" she said. Now, this is what I tell people, too. We – or rather, not me; not any longer – seem to be terribly afraid of comforting children. Sometimes it seems as if the more hands-off you are as a parent, the more of a success you are deemed to be.
Breastfeeding is about comfort, but it's also about nutrition, and that continues for as long as you breastfeed your child, whatever age they are. My milk is a living fluid – full of enzymes, macronutrients, minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, T-cells and at least 200 types of immunoglobin. And that's just what's known – there are ingredients in breast milk that we don't even know about yet. My milk changes, hour by hour, to meet the needs of my child. It isn't like any other woman's milk, anywhere on the planet, because my daughter isn't like any other child in the world.
In September, just as my child was about to turn four, I went to Italy with her. I'd been the year before and had encountered gentle curiosity about us still feeding. This time was different. "It's a tragedy," said one aged cousin, "that she's still feeding." "Who," I asked, "is it a tragedy for? Not me and not my daughter."
I smiled and offered tea, but she wasn't able to answer. Breastfeeding is an emotive subject – the most emotive I've written about. It brings up all sorts of stuff in people; even friends that have hitherto been supportive probably think I'm in freak territory now, even though I'm just doing what Mother Nature intended – humans are the only mammals that don't let their offspring feed to term. I can't deny that I like to normalise breastfeeding in a world that sees it as increasingly alien, and I'm also aware that some women don't have the support network I do and feel they need to feed in secret or enforce weaning when they don't really want to, because family and friends put pressure on them.
Naomi Stadlen, a psychotherapist, breastfeeding counsellor and author of What Mothers Do, Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, once told me that she thought people might feel threatened by the intimacy between a mother and her breastfeeding child. An uncomplicated response to the information "Yes, I'm still breastfeeding", might be curiosity; any stronger reaction was likely to be the other person projecting their problem on to you. It was a useful piece of information.
My child turned four at the end of September; her need to breastfeed seems to have dramatically declined, although, yet again, this may change. Feeding her is a wonderful time we have together and no matter how busy I think I am, it makes me sit down and be with her. She has lots of skin-to-skin contact with me, which I now know is important for neurological development. I've learnt that the natural age of weaning is closer to six years – when the first permanent molars appear – than six months. If I have another baby, my daughter may wean during pregnancy as milk supply can dip at that time. But if she continues to feed during pregnancy and beyond – called tandem feeding and perfectly possible – or if I don't have another baby, then she's in charge. She will wean when she is, uniquely to her, developmentally and immunologically ready (a child's immune system doesn't mature until they are about seven); she will then lose the ability to suckle. I'm interested to see where this goes and how much more I can surprise myself. All I know is that I'm glad I've got this far.
Annalisa Barbieri is co-founder of www.iwantmymum.comFurther reading: The Drinks are On Me, by Veronika Robinson, £11.99 Sincott is writing a book on long-term breastfeeding and asks women to compile a questionnaire: