Posted: Feb 07, 2014 11:00 AM
 
Despite the fact that the worldwide average age for weaning is 4.2 years, extended breastfeeding beyond infancy still faces a tough overall image. The "Are You Mom Enough" Time magazine cover from May 2012 hurt. And statements like those recently made by Closer magazine contributor Dr. Christian Jessen don't help at all.

Dr. Christian Jessen created quite a stir online recently with a controversial quote in Closer magazine. The quote, in which he stated breast milk has no value for a baby beyond six months, caused great offense to many in the breastfeeding community. Ultimately "Dr. Christian" clarified his initial statement from "no value beyond six months" to "no harm beyond six months" and claimed to support breastfeeding women, but his statements — prior and past — say otherwise. And regardless of his feelings on the matter, what he said initially was clinically and scientifically wrong.

He is a doctor

His bio page looks more like that of a Screen Actors Guild member than an American Medical Association member — or whatever the British equivalents of these groups would be. Regardless, it is very clear where his priorities lie.

Dr. Christian is a doctor in the technical sense — he has a degree, he is affiliated with a practice and he sees patients. His website shows him as graduating from University College London and being trained in general medicine, among other things. He writes books and gives quotes, writes columns and articles — all perfectly normal for a member of the medical profession — but he's much more known for the other side of his career: televisions shows. Many television shows. In fact, more of his bio page is dedicated to listing his television appearances than listing his books, columns and such. The page looks more like that of a Screen Actors Guild member than an American Medical Association member — or whatever the British equivalents of these groups would be. Regardless, it is very clear where his priorities lie.

He is a celebrity

Dr. Christian seems most concerned with recognition, getting his name heard and increasing his brand. He's even willing to exploit his own sexuality to do so, as evidenced by his most recent project: Cure Me, I'm Gay. In this project Dr. Christian will partake in "reparative" treatments designed to cure him of his homosexuality. To be fair, he says he's doing it to "prove that trying to change a person's sexuality is futile," but it just seems like attention garnering to me. And the series announcement conveniently came out just three days after his quote in Closer, so the timing is quite questionable.

Why all the background?

Dr. Christian has a habit of saying provocative things for attention.

I want to be sure moms understand Dr. Christian, while a doctor, is not a reliable source for breastfeeding information. His recent statements in Closer magazine, as well as his subsequent "clarification," are not factually based. This is the same man who, in a 2010 issue of Closer, implied breastfeeding can cause your breasts to sag (which is scientifically false), and in 2012 went out of his way to insult breastfeeding advocates, calling them "militant" and "breastpro" on Twitter. Dr. Christian has a habit of saying provocative things for attention. So, for clarity's sake, let's break down what he said in the January 2014 issue of Closer, and why he was so very, very wrong:

The initial quotes

"Breast milk boosts a baby's immune system, but only for the first six months. After that it has no effect."

According to the book Nutrition During Lactation, "Antibodies are abundant in human milk throughout lactation." Many studies have shown some immune factors in breast milk to increase in concentration during the second year and during weaning. Toddlers who breastfeed get sick less often, get better faster and die less as a result of their increased immunities.

"As long as the child is having a healthy diet, there's no harm in breastfeeding."

This isn't an inaccurate statement; it's just an incomplete and inflammatory statement. First, has Dr. Christian ever heard the adage, "Food before one is fun?" There's a reason for that statement — because all necessary nutrients can still be obtained from breast milk throughout the first year. The food is the supplement, not vice versa. Second, saying there is "no harm in breastfeeding" says a lot about Dr. Christian's attitude toward nursing in general. Study after study shows breast milk to be the very best thing you can feed your baby. Even the formula companies will tell you "breast is best." Why? Because it is! It is an indisputable scientific fact. The words "no harm" have the inherent implication that there is no benefit — which isn't at all true.

"Breastfed older children risk becoming psychologically dependent on the mother. This could result in behavioral problems as they grow up."

According to Emma Pickett, a lactation consultant featured in the same Closer article as Dr. Christian, "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest there is any psychological harm in breastfeeding for as long as you and your child want." And behaviorally, the opposite of what Dr. Christian said is true. According to this 2010 study published by the National Institutes of Health, "A shorter duration of breastfeeding may be a predictor of adverse mental health outcomes throughout the developmental trajectory of childhood and early adolescence." This statement by Dr. Christian is the most troublesome to me, not only for its blatant disregard of factual evidence, but because it betrays his apparent contempt for extended breastfeeding in general. He paraphrased this quote on Twitter, and in response to a person saying, "Breastfeeding a 6-year-old is just weird," Dr. Christian replied with, "That was what my 'may cause psychological probs' comment referred to." Shameful that a medical professional would misstate facts just because he considers a practice to be "weird."

WHO recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months as well, with "continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond."

The clarification

"Advice on breast feeding is always changing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breast feeding for up to two years, while the NHS (British National Health Service) recommends breast feeding for the first six months."

Actually, the NHS recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and then says, "After that, giving your baby breast milk alongside other food will help them continue to grow and develop." The "six month" time-frame refers to exclusive breastfeeding not breastfeeding in general — a distinction Dr. Christian as a medical professional should understand and convey with clarity. Also, WHO recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months as well, with "continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond" (emphasis added). Again, his minor changes to the official statement make a big difference in the intent.

"Breast milk is beneficial to a baby's immune system for the first six months, but there is no harm in continuing to do it as long as the child has a healthy diet."

This is mentioned above, but again with the "no harm" thing. Why say that? And why clarify with "as long as the child has a healthy diet?" Even with a poor diet there is no harm in extended breastfeeding.

"If a child is being breast fed until 8, this may make them overly dependent on their mother. However if they are being breast fed at 4, there is no harm in this."

I would like to refer to the above mentioned Twitter comment by Dr. Christian, where he agrees that a nursing 6-year-old is "weird." According to him, 4 is fine. Six is weird. Eight can cause problems. So what about a 5-year-old? This is again his opinion, influenced by his bias and not based in fact.

"I support women who want to breastfeed and would never wish to discourage anyone from doing so."

I would disagree. Supporting breastfeeding mothers involves relaying fact-based, scientific information. Particularly when you have the massive reach Closer magazine has, and especially when your title includes the word "doctor." Doctor Christian, you know better. Next time do better.

More on extended breastfeeding

Breastfeeding toddlers: Why extended breastfeeding works
Why breastfeeding a 3-year-old rocks
Benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy

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