Parenting

Breastfeeding: One Man’s Perspective

'Being male in no way disqualifies me from adopting a pro-breastfeeding perspective.'

No one would dispute that breastfeeding is a quintessentially feminine act. However, some might wonder how a man can be passionate and committed about breastfeeding. I have commented often on the topic’s sociocultural dimension but without explicitly identifying the source of my passion and commitment. I will endeavor to do that now.

I’ll start with my three most relevant credentials: I've been a mammal since 1944; I've been a dad since 1974; and I've been a granddad since 2000. Oh, and by the time I retired from salaried employment in 2004, I had also worked for three decades in the field of international public health nutrition.

“Relevant credentials: I've been a mammal since 1944; I've been a dad since 1974.”

I lived my first two decades in the United States and came of age in a highly conflicted anti-pleasure environment. This coincided with a breastfeeding initiation rate of only 25% during the period 1946-1950 (it reached 22%, its historic low, in 1972).[1] Distrust, even fear, of the human body contrasted with the era’s often morbid obsession with sexuality and varying degrees of associated denial, hypocrisy and guilt.

We should be able to do better than that, I reasoned; and I credit the traditional farming community in Cameroon, where I worked for several years in my mid-20s, for showing me how. Recalling the outmoded maxim that children should be seen and not heard, I have no memory of kids crying[2] during that period. Mothers routinely carried their young children; physical contact[3] was continuous[4]; and breastfeeding was so commonplace as to go utterly unnoticed.

In addition to that formative intercultural experience, other factors include my abiding interest in human motivation; cultural influences on behavior in the diverse environments – besides the US and Cameroon, Turkey, Haiti and Switzerland – where I have lived and worked; the implications of acting, or failing to act, in a manner consistent with our nature; and how the universal biological norm[5] for nurturing and nourishing our babies is variously molded within society.

Add persistent curiosity, since my teen years, about how "deviant behavior" is defined in a given sociocultural context; who goes to prison and for how long (the US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world[6]); and the all too frequent neglect of crime prevention in favor of criminal confinement. Though interpretive caution is called for, it is nevertheless instructive to compare breastfeeding[7] and incarceration[8] rates in the same environment.

Years ago I observed that countries with low incarceration rates often have high breastfeeding rates and vice versa. I am not claiming categorically that breastfeeding keeps people out of prison, although research[9] suggests that may well be true[10] in several meaningful ways[11]. What I am saying, however, is that breastfeeding is a significant surrogate measure of how effectively society nurtures, in the broadest sense of the term, its most vulnerable members[12].

Consider as well the impact of breast milk and breastfeeding on cognition;[13] educational, mental, psychomotor and behavioral functioning;[14] decreasing the risk of neuropsychological deficits;[15] and laying the foundation for meaningful relationships[16]. Mammals have been evolving for 260 million years[17] or so[18], and today there are some 5400 species,[19] each with its own inimitable milk. Indeed, humans may have the most complex milk of all[20]. We don't need to be scientists to conclude that we won’t achieve our developmental potential if we fail to consume the unique, first food that is tailor-made for us.

“We don't need to be scientists to conclude that we won’t achieve our developmental potential if we fail to consume the unique, first food that is tailor-made for us.”

Human milk’s principal protein, alpha-lactalbumin, plays an essential role in lactose production while protecting the newborn’s gut against disease. The protein’s therapeutic potential was also uncovered in 1995[21] as a self-destruct trigger for cancerous tumor cells[22]. This was followed, in 2013, with the discovery that the same protein may hold the key to defeating lethal hospital-acquired staph infections[23]. Stem cells were first detected in human milk in 2007. Today, they can be directed to become other body cell types such as bone, fat, liver and brain cells[24]. Only recently have we begun to understand that human milk’s more than 200 complex carbohydrates are not there to feed babies. Instead, they nourish the billions of microorganisms that make up the healthy gut flora and protect against infection and disease[25]. In addition, other molecules in a mother’s milk help shape her child’s lifelong immune responses, and promote tolerance for microbes while keeping them in the gut and away from the rest of the body[26]. Discoveries like these offer important insights into how much there is still to learn about human milk – scientists are calling it the ultimate personalized medicine[27] – and its impact on both child growth and development, and human health and well-being in general.

“Being male in no way disqualifies me from adopting a pro-breastfeeding perspective.”

Thus, as I see it, being male in no way disqualifies me from adopting a pro-breastfeeding perspective. On the contrary, since breast milk and breastfeeding are in the best interest of women and children, they are inevitably in the best interest of men. So, too, is the support from men, and fathers[28] in particular, that validates the time and effort women invest in breastfeeding even as it enhances prospects for success[29].

However, there's no need to be a parent to appreciate the multiple rewards of surrounding ourselves with healthy, well-adjusted and clever people who begin life’s journey in keeping with Nature's plan. But let’s be clear about the implications here.

Breastfeeding doesn’t make us smarter; rather, not breastfeeding results in falling short of our intellectual promise. Human babies will never achieve their genetic potential by ingesting a pediatric fast-food – I’m talking infant formula[30] here – prepared from the milk of a species that’s alien to ours.

There are no benefits to breastfeeding, only varying degrees of risk, for the health of mothers and children, of not breastfeeding. Indeed, extolling the “benefits of breastfeeding” makes as much sense as touting the “benefits of walking upright on two feet”. Both are defining features – no more and certainly no less – of what it means to be human.

“Breastfeeding is neither a woman's issue nor a man's issue. Breastfeeding is a human issue of fundamental importance to us all.”

And speaking of walking upright, surely advocating regular exercise is unlikely to be construed as an attempt to humiliate those of us confined to wheelchairs. Yet some observers take exception to promoting breastfeeding, claiming that the real purpose is to shame formula feeders.

Bear in mind that infant formula was originally intended for use as an emergency nutrition intervention. Thus, pitching formula[31] as suitable for routine consumption[32] deprives it of its only claim to legitimacy[33] as a life-sustaining crisis commodity for children with no access to human milk[34].

The best place to be? Where all people, because they are informed, caring and supportive, not only anticipate that mothers will provide their children with human milk; they also take the appropriate steps, as part of normalized behavior, to ensure they can do just that.

For all these reasons then, I conclude that breastfeeding is neither a woman’s issue nor a man’s issue. Breastfeeding is a human issue of fundamental importance to us all.

* * *

Auf Deutsch.

[2] Interview with Darcia Narvaez – Evolutionary Parenting

[3] How science and history support you sleeping with your baby

[4] There is no such thing as infant sleep, there is no such thing as breastfeeding, there is only breastsleeping

[6] United States incarceration rate

[7] Infant and young child feeding data by country

[8] World Prison Population List

[9] The neuropsychological underpinnings to psychopathic personality traits in a nationally representative and longitudinal sample

[10] The neuropsychological contributors to psychopathic personality traits in adolescence

[11] There is no mystery: Violence begins in the womb

[12] Exclusive Breastfeeding and Cognition, Executive Function, and Behavioural Disorders in Primary School-Aged Children in Rural South Africa: A Cohort Analysis

[13] Breastfeeding and child cognitive development: new evidence from a large randomized trial

[14] Association of breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age: a prospective birth cohort study from Brazil

[15] The neuropsychological underpinnings to psychopathic personality traits in a nationally representative and longitudinal sample

[16] Oxytocin increases trust in humans

[17] Mammal (Wikipedia)

[18] Are mammals 30 million years older than previously thought?

[19] Mammalogy FAQs

[20] Breastfed at Tiffany’s

[22] Apoptosis induced by a human milk protein

[24] Stem cells in breast milk

[26] Breastfeeding is good for yet another reason, researchers discover

[27] Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect

[28] When it comes to breastfeeding success, I have my partner to thank

[29] A controlled trial of the father’s role in breastfeeding promotion

[30] Infant Feeding Matters. What we feed them now matters forever

[31] Marketing of breast-milk substitutes: National implementation of the International Code. Status report 2016

[33] Implementing the International Code. Launch of the 2016 status report, Geneva Press Club, May 9, 2016

[34] Global strategy for infant and young child feeding

Portraits Of Breastfeeding Mothers