Few people could fail to have logged the furore which has greeted the BMJ’s publication of analysis of the research on exclusive breast feeding to the age of six months – the current recommendation of both the UK government and the WHO (World Health Organisation).
The researchers fear that breast milk alone may not provide enough nutrition for a thriving five-to-six month-old baby, whether there could be a higher incidence of coeliac disease and food allergies if babies are not introduced to solid foods before six months, and that ‘prolonged breast feeding may reduce the window for introducing new tastes, particularly bitter tastes which may be important in the later acceptance of green leafy vegetables. This could encourage unhealthy eating in later life and lead to obesity.’
Breast feeding campaigners say that the researchers are all in the pay of the a baby food industry and that this is a set up! For more details on both claims see the report on the foodsmatter.com site.
While there does seem some justification for suggesting that a large and thriving baby could need more food, even if only in terms of bulk, than its mother’s breast milk can provide, the evidence that babies who are exclusively breast fed till six months are more likely to get coeliac disease seems to be tenuous in the extreme. And although the debate continues to rage over the early or late introduction of peanuts as a road to tolerance, the problem for potentially allergic children seems to lie more squarely with the immune system of the child concerned than with the foods that it is fed.
What has also been entirely ignored is the mother’s ability to provide milk. For some mother’s a copious flow will be easy and the child well fed, for others, providing sufficient milk may be a struggle and, if they do not wish their child to be fed cow’s milk formulae, an earlier introduction of solid foods may be a more acceptable alternative.
Surely what is required here is flexibility. For some children breast milk alone will be sufficient even past six months, for others, the bigger, speedier growing children, they may need ‘topping up’ with solid foods earlier. In less nuclear families, communal child rearing experience would suggest that each baby needs to be fed according to its needs, not according to a predetermined-by-government plan. Guidelines are fine and helpful, but they should remain just that – guidelines, not rules.