A Thumbs Up Book Review
Milk, Money, and Madness
By Naomi Baumslag, MD, MPH and Dia L. Michels
Review by Sally Fallon
Dr. Baumslag and her coauthor wrote this book to bring alive “the history, the culture, the biology and the politics of breastfeeding so women can appreciate the contribution of breastfeeding to the survival of the human species.” Their book does this admirably, from its initial discussion of breastfeeding customs around the world to the shocking expose of formula marketing practices.
This book covers special foods for nursing mothers, treatments for lactation failure, and various traditions that give support to the mother after childbirth. In many cultures, the new mother is forbidden from doing any cooking for at least one month—a wise tradition indeed. But not all traditional customs are wise. Many cultures withhold colostrum, giving the baby sweetened water or herbal teas for the first four days of life, until the mother’s milk comes in. Belief that colostrum was a pus or poison led to very high levels of infant mortality in Europe until the 18th century, when doctors began to recognize the value of “first milk.”
Dr. Baumslag’s book is unique among books on breastfeeding in its non-dogmatic tone. In her discussion of duration of breastfeeding she notes that in some cultures mothers nurse for as long as 15 years, while in other parts of the world two years is the norm. In some cultures, duration of nursing is tied to the gender of the child. Among Iranians, it is traditional to breastfeed girls for two months longer than boys. In other cultures, boys are nursed longer. “Each mother/child team needs to determine for itself how long they are comfortable feeding. . . ” says Dr. Baumslag. She recommends six months exclusive breastfeeding before the introduction of supplemental food.
Her fascinating discussion of wet nursing includes a description of a foundling home in 13th century Rome. Unwanted infants who had hitherto been thrown into the river Tiber were left to the home anonymously and a corps of wet nurses was employed to feed them. Flute and lute musicians played throughout the day to ensure an optimal feeding atmosphere. European aristocrats took care in choosing a wet nurse for their infants. The ideal wet nurse was healthy, had “good white teeth,” a cheerful disposition and avoided certain foods deemed to detract from the quality of her milk.
Until the 20th century, only the wealthy did not nurse their babies. Today breastfeeding is more common among the educated and upper classes than among the poor. Low income mothers and women in developing nations are the special targets of formula marketing campaigns.
While we are sorry that this book contains warnings against the use of cow and goat milk when a mother’s milk supply is insufficient, and that it confuses the milk certification movement with pasteurization, the authors present enough shocking revelations about commercial formula to spur parents to find alternatives when supplemental feeding is necessary.
Baumslag and Michels ask some important questions about a society that gives so little support to the practice of breastfeeding. “An appreciation of breastfeeding leads to an appreciation of the breast itself, a gland composed largely of fatty tissue. Unfortunately, too often it is seen as an object of sexual desire rather than as a fountain of utilitarian magnificence. The lack of appreciation for the breast reflects a lack of appreciation of the female as a person. When the fluid responsible for sustaining human life is seen as essentially identical to a canned powder produced in a factory, it is easy to see how the appreciation of the breast (and with it, the female body) has been lost. This book is also about reclaiming that appreciation.”
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2001.