Dec 2018 Newsletter: Why Artificial Feeding for Infants Should be the Last Resort: Observations from Maureen Minchin’s talk

By Khatim Hamidon, Vice-President, BMSG
Photos courtesy of Alexandria Neoh, Picspirations Photography

Formula milk shrinks penises.

At least, that was one of the revelations about artificial feeding that stuck in my mind during a talk by Maureen Minchin, a renowned Australian breastfeeding researcher. The talk, titled Infant Feeding and Modern Epidemics: Obesity, Allergy, Autism, Diabetes, was organised by the BMSG  last November.

Maureen Minchin has studied the effects of artificial feeding for the short and long term.

Minchin, who pioneered the field of lactation consultancy, was in Singapore under the invitation of the Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy (Singapore) (ABAS), and was also promoting her book, Milk Matters: Infant feeding & Immune Disorder, which took almost five years and not without sweat, tears and sacrifices to complete.

Formula feeding is wrought with sensitivity, with mothers pitted against each other on which mode of feeding is “better”. Minchin, however, did not shy away from the fact that formula milk should only be used as the last resort on what an infant should be fed during her talk. This was also an important tenet that underlies her writing.

Many people know about the benefits of breastfeeding (which is not a “benefit” to begin with, because breastfeeding should be the norm!). Breastfeeding reduces childhood illnesses, improves mothers’ health and promotes bonding between mother and child.

Minchin bravely delved into this further. She posited the milk hypothesis, in which breastfeeding is critical in transitioning a baby from a life inside the womb to a thriving life outside of it.

From health professionals, to breastfeeding counsellors, mothers and members of the public – all were interested to hear what Minchin had to share.

Breastmilk is the species-specific building blocks of the baby’s growth and development. An infant’s gut is permeable for this reason: to absorb stem cells and growth factors, besides the nutrients and antibodies in breastmilk, so as to develop optimally.

When breastfeeding is not realised, and the baby is exposed to formula milk instead, this will trigger epigenetic changes.

Babies exposed to formula milk are developing on ingredients that are not easily absorbed by their tiny bodies, and instead can be harmful to their gut – for example, synthetic nutrients derived from marine algae – which results in the baby’s development not following the same trajectory as that of a breastfed baby. This in turn affects babies right to the cellular level, skews the gut microbiome and this may be manifested both in the short and the long term hence why the various list of modern epidemics that Minchin shared with us in the title of her talk: obesity, eczema, PCOS, precocious puberty…and shrinking penises.

That is not all. These changes are also vertically communicated from the parent (either mother or father) to their children, and compounded through generations, as more and more babies are introduced to the supposedly modern artificial feeding.

It goes without saying that Minchin’s position is not shaming parents who are not breastfeeding their infants. On the contrary, she means that the majority of parents are not fully informed on the harms of artificial feeding. “How many OBGYNs actually talk to mothers about the importance of breastfeeding?” she asked the audience.

Minchin shared that a mother of a sick child cried when she read Minchin’s book, and exclaimed that she was relieved that whatever that her child was going through, was not her “fault” as a mother. That truly pierced my heart, because this was essentially a mother trying her best caring for her child and fighting the inadvertent product of previous generations.

It goes without saying that Minchin’s position is not shaming parents who are not breastfeeding their infants. On the contrary, she means that the majority of parents are not fully informed on the harms of artificial feeding. “How many OBGYNs actually talk to mothers about the importance of breastfeeding?” she asked the audience.

Some of BMSG’s volunteer counsellors and EXCO members with Minchin (centre, in black).

It feels quite bleak when you think about the generations of populations around the world introduced to unnecessary artificial feeding, and the well-meaning but damaging belief that it is a cure-all for almost any ailment: jaundice, weight loss, ineffective suckling, etc. Perhaps so many illnesses and health conditions could have been averted should young infants receive only what their sensitive tummies are meant to only fully digest: breastmilk.

But all is not lost. “Epigenetic changes do persist, but don’t persist forever,” Minchin explained, “…if we can manage to get the right care for breastfeeding babies for a few generations, we may be able to revert back to a better baseline genome.”

As the saying goes, when we know better, we do better. Let’s hope we continue to breastfeed, not just for ourselves, but also for our communities and society.

Minchin concluded with a stirring dénouement that, to me, simply cannot be summarised:

“Every one of you who is actually breastfeeding or has breastfed, has changed history for the better. You’ve helped to make the world a healthier place. You can regard yourself as (a) positive miracle worker, having succeeded in a society that stacked against success, structurally, in every way. If society just understood how really good breastmilk is, every mother would have been paid to stay home and breastfeed, or employ a wet nurse to do the job for her.”

I wanted to burst out crying. Mothers; we are miracle workers. Continue to advocate for breastfeeding for your child’s health, and for your child’s child’s health. We can make this world a better place.

Visit Maureen Minchin’s site here for more information on her work. You may also want to consider getting her book, Milk Matters: Infant feeding & Immune Disorder, which is sold at the BMSG website for $95. Part of the proceeds will go towards the BMSG.