Ta-ta telephone

I'm going to whip one out - a post, that is, not a boob (at least not for another 45 minutes or so) - to address something I heard recently that's been driving me batty. A honest, earnest young woman of my acquaintance was told by her teacher that breast feeding was bad for babies after the first few weeks.

Do you get why I'm seething?

There are a few things I don't know here. I don't know if the received information matches the sent information. I don't know if the teacher actually said 'is insufficient for a baby's nutritional needs', or what exact age, if any, was cited as a cut-off.

What I do know is that it's misinformation like this that will sink us.

Unlearning and relearning (German has a handy term that encompasses both those steps: verlernen) is far, far more difficult than learning something the first time. Part of the problem is that once we have accepted a source as credible, any competing information must pass a series of acceptability tests in our minds to even get considered. If you were taught something incorrect, you do not believe it to be false. You think you've got that down, filed, good to go; let's move on. Any incoming information will be assessed and understood based on the schema of previously accepted information. This is how brainwashing works - little steps, each one building on the last and all grounded in some fundamental beliefs. And what is school except brainwashing in culturally-accepted colours?

When you encounter a concept that does not fit with your existing information framework the easiest reaction is to ignore it. The next is to call it bovine excrement. Beyond that is attempting to actively discredit it through logical dismantling, but that requires interacting with this black-sheep idea, and that's uncomfortable.

In order to verlern something, someone or something must induce you to tango with this messy, uncomfortable idea you'd rather ignore. This holds true whether the new information is true, false or just unexpected. You must look at it, turn it over and around, and learn to see its value. And then you must consider it more valuable than the idea that used to take up that space in your life, and throw out the old idea, replace it with the new one, and hook up all the surrounding ideas to this new addition. If the old surrounding ideas don't fit around the new one, they all have to be re-examined and the process repeated in an ever-expanding ripple, called a paradigm shift*.

Herein lies the incredible power of the hand that chalks the blackboard: they have first crack at the virgin territory of the brains of our youth, installing the accumulated wisdom of the past into the populace of the future as the paradigm through which they will understand and interact with the world.

Presuming the received information - that breast feeding is damaging to babies after the initial few weeks - was indeed the sent information, we have various problems:
  1. it does not match the current scientific knowledge but rather grounds the students' understanding of infant nutrition and functional health in outmoded and disproven hooey. They will then sally forth and provide fodder for the public health professionals trying to change their (formula-feeding) behavior to conform with current best practices. That's a whole lot of wasted resources
  2. it seeds the belief that our brains are smarter than our bodies, that science can replace evolution, that mind not only can triumph over matter, but must for the benefit of babies
    • this leads to things like eating disorders (I can't be hungry! I just ate X number of calories), adrenal fatigue (I can't be tired! This table says adults only need 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night), and...
  3. it implies that a woman's body is not capable of doing what is is meant for. With all the proactive feminist messages girls get through PowerPuff Girls and suchwhat, things like the fear of insufficient milk hit us where we can't hide: boobies and babies are our territory. If we believe that our milk is not sufficient, we are not sufficient; it deals a blow to our fundamental sense of self and competence as a being. If the body - that matter that our minds must conquer - is weak, our only chance is to rely on those smart people (usually men, even these days) in lab coats who will tell us what to do. 
As soon as girls believe they must be taught how to reproduce, we're in a hell of information overload, conflicting advice and rumours, all of which pulls us into our heads and out of our bodies and hearts. But health science is about revealing what the body does, not reinventing it.

I have a whole shelf of parenting books. When I worked professionally it was partly to test ways of teaching parents the current best practices in baby care. So trust me when I say that the head has a role here. But the body came before all that, and the body knows what to do. At three in the morning when the baby starts whimpering, the milk lets down before I can even get rolled over and lined up. At four in the morning when the contractions started, I sat back to watch the show put on by my baby and my body, knowing that my mind was not needed once the midwife had been summoned. When the cranky-pants preschooler whacks her head into the fridge while flipping around in a fit, she doesn't need psychology, she needs a hug. The body knows these things.

And as soon as we start teaching our kids that the body doesn't know, we set them up to fail when the information we teach them to override their bodies with turns out to be incorrect.

To answer the original question, breast milk is a complete food for babies provided the mother is well nourished until sometime between the 6th and 12th month of life, when they will naturally start indicating an interest in table food to round out their nutritional needs. Breast feeding has benefits over bottles that do not end at a specific age. If your baby does not appear satisfied, or seems to have a negative reaction to your milk, there is something wrong that should be checked out by a doctor, which I am not. Nor am I starting a breast vs bottle vs formula debate (I hope).

But a debate about the role of teachers as enculturators and the purpose of schooling? Bring it.
*Here's how I think of schemas and paradigms: a schema is like a honeycomb that related ideas have to fit into or they will be rejected, and a paradigm is a hive of combs that work together to store and sort all information on a constellation of topics. Education is the process of filling up the honey.

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