The absence of breastfeeding experience & education in the 21st century means that there are many misconceptions surrounding it. In my view though - there’s no place for dangerous old wives tales where you & your baby’s health is concerned. As a mom of one who has currently been breastfeeding for over two and a half years, I am passionate about sharing research-based facts that empower a new generation of nursing mamas. With that in mind, here are the truths behind seven of the most common breastfeeding myths:
1. Your Baby Needs More Than ‘Just’ Breast Milk to Thrive
Many well-meaning relatives, friends or even complete strangers(!) may tell you that your baby needs more than ‘just’ breast milk, claiming, “That’s why he’s always on the boob!” Or “She would sleep so much better if you gave her some formula/cereal/arrow root in a bottle at night to fill her up.” Not only is this advice incorrect, but giving a baby anything but milk in a bottle is dangerous & a choking hazard (1). The World Health Organisation states that babies do not require any food or drink in addition to breast milk for at least the first 6 months of life (2). If your child nurses frequently to maintain your milk supply - that is a benefit, not a problem; this may be misinterpreted by those with a limited understanding of the way that breastfeeding works. When it comes to the minefield that is sleep, some breastfed babies sleep longer stretches early on, just as some formula fed babies wake every 45 minutes for the first year old their lives. Irrespective of how wakeful your baby is, unless you have concerns about your milk supply and your baby is not gaining weight at a healthy rate, your breast milk is everything that your babe needs to thrive.
2. Breastfed Babies Are More Clingy
Every child is different, but breastfeeding is often used as a scapegoat when biologically normal, developmentally appropriate infant behaviours are deemed to be inconvenient. In a world obsessed with forcing children to be independent before they are ready to be, the breastfeeding dyad is often blamed for making babies ‘clingy’ compared to their formula fed peers. The truth is that breastfed babies seek comfort from the breast as well as food, hydration, pain relief, boredom & more. This may mean that they are nursed far more frequently than a formula fed baby has a bottle - and that’s not only ok, it’s optimal. In fact, when we look at the research into independence in children, the results would probably surprise many: breastfed children who are allowed to self wean actually grow up to be more socially independent than their peers (3).
3. You Cannot Drink Alcohol if you are Breastfeeding
If you want to have the odd alcoholic drink at celebrations or at the end of a long week, you can do so safely if you time your feedings carefully around your blood alcohol levels. Check out ‘Alcohol and Breastfeeding‘ by La Leche League for details of how (4).
4. After X Amount of Months, Breast Milk Has No Nutritional Value
Just like every other food & drink in the world, breast milk never loses its nutritional value. It is an incredible, responsive, living substance which changes to meet your baby or toddler or child’s evolving needs. This includes providing your little one with antibodies when they are unwell (whatever their age!). Furthermore, scientists have found that after 2 years, a mother’s milk contains 60% more calories than it does at 12 months postpartum (5). More mature breast milk also contains greater proportions of fat and protein than less mature breast milk (5); further evidence that it continues to meet the needs of toddlers and older children beyond infancy.
5. You Can Overfeed a Breastfed Baby
If a baby is exclusively breastfed, it is not possible to overfeed them. Full stop. You will not ‘spoil’ your little one or teach them bad habits if you nurse then every time they need food or comfort (6). This is because breastfeeding at the breast is so responsive and adaptive. It is however possible to over feed a baby expressed breast milk or formula from a bottle.
6. Breast Milk Causes Cavities in Teeth
If we think about this from an evolutionary perspective, it would make no sense whatsoever if breast milk caused cavities in babies or children. In fact, “Studies have shown that a breastfed child is significantly less likely to suffer from tooth decay (dental caries) than a child who is artificially fed. As well as the continuing benefits to the health of mother and child, breastfeeding promotes optimal jaw and tooth development. A breastfed child is less likely to suffer from crooked teeth (malocclusion) and the longer the child is breastfed the greater the reduction in risk. A breastfed baby is also less likely to suffer from discolouration of teeth caused by excess fluoride (fluorosis).” (6)
Practicing good dental hygiene is important for all babies and children aa soon as they have teeth. The NHS offers free, up to date advice on how to best care for your babe’s teeth, however they are fed. (7)
7. Your Child Will Breastfeed Until Adulthood Unless You Wean Them
Once more this misconception seems to be rooted in cultural ideals surrounding independence and autonomy in young children and even babies. Every single child in the history of the human race weaned at some point and yours will too if you decide against parent-led weaning. Your aunt may have terrified you with horror stories about 15 year olds nursing, but if there is any truth in such tales, then that are extremely rare and do not represent the vast majority of people’s experiences. If you are happy to nurse your child beyond infancy, you should do just that! There are no known drawbacks, but there are a myriad of benefits for you both.
3) Ferguson, D.M. et al. Breastfeeding and subsequent social adjustment in six- to eight-year-old children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 1987; 28: 378-86.