So-called "Christian" parenting curricula
by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology,
Texas A & M University
The essay below was originally written in response to a question I received about a certain "parenting" curriculum sometimes used in Christian churches in the 1990s, and still around today (2004). I have three problems with the program.
One is philosophical/cultural one is physiological, and the third is historical. Note: Please, gentle readers, do not send me nasty letters attacking me personally for my objections to this program.
1) Philosophical/cultural: The underlying assumption of the
program is that children are manipulative little demons, an emotional and physical
burden on parents, and must be forced into rigid routines for the convenience of the
parents. I once wrote that it would be nice if babies only had to have their diapers changed once a day,
just like it would be nice if the dogs only had to fed once a week (being sarcastic). I
think this is a terrible approach to having/raising children. In my humble opinion once you get married and have a
child you do not become "A couple who happens to have a child/children." You
become "A family." And that changes everything, as well it should. Children
should be a joy, they should be loved, their needs should be met, they should be
respected, etc. etc. etc. Did not Jesus say "Suffer (allow) the little children to
come to me"?
2) Physiological: Regardless of one's parenting philosophy,
there are limits to human physiological adaptation in terms of producing milk (on the
mother's part) and growth and health (on the child's part). It is POSSIBLE for some women
to produce sufficient milk when nursing on a three hour schedule, or even a four hour schedule. However, many many women
will not. Breast milk production is a DEMAND-driven system. When the baby latches on to
nurse the physical stimulation of the nipples triggers her pituitary to release oxytocin
and prolactin. Prolactin is the hormone which tells the breasts to make more milk in the early weeks and months of lactation.
Prolactin has a very short half-life in the bloodstream, about 30 minutes. Thus, if the
baby is nursing frequently (several times an hour is the "plan by design"
whether you think that design comes from God or evolution) then the prolactin levels are continuously
elevated and mom makes lots of milk. That's why it is possible for women to nurse twins
and even triplets. If the baby nurses infrequently, then blood levels of prolactin fall
very low between nursings, and the mother doesn't produce much milk.
Later on in lactation, past about 3-4 months postpartum, milk production is driven by how much milk is removed from the breasts, at the level of the breasts (not mediated by the pituitary or prolactin). Thus, if the child nurses a lot and removes a lot of milk, the mother's breasts will make more to replace it. It the child nurses only occasionally and doesn't remove a lot of milk, the mother will make only as much as was taken out. You can even have a child who nurses from only one side, and that side will continue to make milk, while the other breast stops making milk.
nursing raises the fat content of the milk, as well as increasing the quantity produced. So frequent
nursing results in lots of high-fat milk, which is just what the baby needs to grow
properly. If allowed to nurse on demand, children will regulate their frequency of nursing
to get exactly the quantity and quality of milk they personally need. Infrequent nursing
results not only in low quantity, but also in low fat milk. [It's like the difference
between a quart of whole milk and a pint of skim milk -- babies need the former, in this
analogy, but nursing on a three-hour schedule provides only the latter.]
Now, women vary with respect to how much prolactin they
release with each stimulus, and how much milk their breasts make in response to a given
amount of prolactin. So yes, some women CAN make plenty of milk with only three-hour
nursing intervals (it will still be the low-fat variety). But, as I said before and can't
say too many times, most women will not produce sufficient milk of sufficiently high fat
content, while nursing on a three-hour schedule to meet the needs of their infant. This leads to fussy behavior in the
child, who is chronically hungry, and can lead to poor growth (mom will be told she
"Doesn't have" or "Can't make" or "Isn't making" enough milk
or that "Her milk isn't good enough" and baby needs a supplemental bottle of
formula, which cuts down even more on the stimulus to the breasts, so she makes even less,
and soon the baby is totally bottle-fed).
In extreme cases, where a physician is not
monitoring the baby's progress, this can lead to growth retardation, dehydration, and even
death. Especially when parents are hoping to have a quiet placid baby -- which is exactly
how dehydrated, about to die, babies act -- quiet and placid, sleepy and lethargic. Thus,
while it might be convenient for moms to only nurse once in every three hours, it is
unphysiological and will usually result in inadequate milk production and poor growth in
The parent-controlled approach to breastfeeding also assumes that babies nurse only for
nutrition, but this is not true. They are also getting immunological factors in the milk
that help them cope with infections and diseases they have been exposed to, and they are
regulating their temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure through nursing also. There
is no way to tell "why" the baby wants to nurse -- you have to trust
God/Evolution that when the baby says it wants to nurse by crying, rooting, being fussy,
that it *knows* what it is doing. This may not be convenient for the parents. If you want
convenience, get a doll.
When newborn babies cry very hard for very long, they
can suffer from skyrocketing blood pressure, intracranial bleeds, and persistence of the
fetal patterns of circulation of the blood through the heart, which can keep the postnatal
circulation of the blood from being established correctly and can lead to brain damage
(see the work of Gene Cranston Anderson on why it is dangerous to let a baby cry). Babies who routinely are left to cry, and who sleep alone have been shown to have permanently elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their bloodstream. Babies
also nurse for the comfort of being near mom, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling her, and
in my humble opinion these emotional needs are legitimate and should be met if you want
healthy happy children later down the road.
3) Historical: The concept
of scheduling infant feeding began early in this century with "scientific"
approaches to mothering and the desire to raise children who could cope with factory work. For an excellent analysis of this, I refer you to Anne Millard's
"The Place of the Clock in Pediatric Advice," and Rima Apple's book on the
history of mothers and medicine in the West. Anthropological studies of breastfeeding frequency in "traditional cultures"
shows that mothers may feed children earlier than they are indicating a want/need, because
mom has something else to do, or they may try to placate the baby by tying them on their
backs when they have something they have to finish (in other words, not everyone drops
what they are doing to nurse the baby truly "on demand" in every culture), but
that no one outside of industrialized/Western cultures nurses children on a schedule.
People simply have no access to clocks, pay no attention to how long it has been since the
child last nursed, etc. Kids are carried with the mother as she does her work, and are
nursed very frequently. My own research in Mali (West Africa) shows that women nurse
their children while doing their work, and children are thought to have the absolute right
to be nursed whenever they need/want.
From all the research done among modern day traditional cultures, and from what we know of the culture into which Jesus was born, we know that Mary, like other women of
ancient Israel, and around the world today, worked very hard and had lots of physical
labor that she had to accomplish each day. Women in traditional cultures do not nurse according to a schedule,
however, nor do they do much of anything else according to a schedule except perhaps
prepare meals. They incorporate frequent and irregular nursing into their lives without
missing a beat. Short of having a time machine to go back and watch, I think we can safely
assume that Jesus was nursed several times an hour, around the clock, slept with his
mother, was carried on her back, and nursed until he was 3 to 4 years of age, or older.
I am not suggesting
that all women should nurse their babies several times an hour around the clock until they
are 3 or 4 years of age. But we should not distort the historical record, and we should try to
keep in mind that if we want to breastfeed our babies, we have to follow certain
biological rules in order to maintain our milk supply enough to support healthy growth in
our children. It would be very convenient if humans were like seals, who nurse their
babies for only a few days while they triple their birth weight, and then wean them. But humans
are not seals. They are primates, and like other primates they have very dependent young,
who grow very slowly, and who are designed by evolution/God to expect frequent
breastfeeding for several years. When you go against the design and don't "follow the
instructions" provided by the infant, then you have to expect problems.
Other than the health problems caused to the infants, and
the whole philosophy of viewing children as inconveniences, I think the saddest part of
these sorts of Christian parenting programs is that they set so many young women up for failure. These new mothers will try to
follow the "rules" set by the curriculum, their babies will be unhappy and not
grow properly, their doctors will tell them they "don't have enough milk" and
must supplement with formula, and they will feel like failures for not having been able to
do this most basic act of nurturing. This shatters their confidence in their bodies and
their parenting instincts, makes them feel like a failure, and discourages them from
trying breastfeeding again. It also makes their experience as parents very unpleasant,
with an unhappy, fussy baby who is screaming "I'm hungry" and the parents are
telling him/her "You're not hungry." This is not a good basis for a lifelong
connection with one's children.
Breastfeeding should be a wonderful connection between
mother and child that fosters better health in both and leads to a close emotional bond,
giving the child the best start possible in life. When people conspire to sabotage this
process, while claiming to support it (!), you have to wonder what their underlying motive
Originally written by Kathy Dettwyler, February 24, 1996 (under a different title), updated March 16, 2004.
Last updated March 16, 2004 , by kad. Contents copyright 1999-2004 by Sue Ann Kendall and Kathy Dettwyler. Thanks to Prairienet, the Free-Net of east-central Illinois , for hosting this site from 1999 through 2004.
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