Dr Christian Jessen, TV doctor, has caused controversy again with his recent remarks about breastfeeding. Responding to points raised by breastfeeding mothers on Twitter, he said that it was “fine” if mothers did not breastfeed. He went on to say that while it would be great if mothers breastfed for six months, if they didn’t “that is fine too”, appearing to ignore guidelines from both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the NHS.
Talking to The Sun online, Dr. Jessen said “We are lucky enough to live in the developed world where healthcare is good and actually, when it all boils down, bottlefed versus breastfed children in the UK are all absolutely fine.” In fact, the WHO has found that exclusive breastfeeding for six months is best for babies everywhere.
The significance to health
When asked about the effect of breastfeeding on both short-term and long-term health of both mother and baby, Dr. Jessen said “The baby will be just fine, they won’t be less intelligent or, in the grand scheme of things, less healthy”. He appears to have overlooked various studies which have found that breastfeeding can make a significant difference to health, and that if babies were breastfed for longer it could save the NHS up to £40 million a year.
Extensive research on the relationship between cognitive achievement (IQ scores, grades in school) and breastfeeding has shown the greatest gains for those children breastfed the longest.
Protecting the immune system
Talking about breastmilk and a baby’s immune system, Dr. Jessen stated that “Formula milk is made up to be as representative of breast milk as possible without the mother’s antibodies” – which is, of course, a considerable difference.
Breastmilk is the biological norm for babies. It contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes, antibodies and compounds with unique structures and functions that can never be replicated by infant formula. It adapts to suit each individual baby, and if an infant is premature it will adjust so that it is ideal for the continued growth that baby needs.
The doctor continued “Breast milk covers the period of time when the baby’s immune system is developing”. In fact, it takes between two and six years for a child’s immune system to fully mature. Human milk continues to complement and boost the immune system for as long as offered, helping the baby remain healthy and fight germs to which either the mother or baby have been exposed.
Dr. Jessen said “The mother’s antibodies protect the baby from whatever bugs she has been exposed to while breastfeeding. What is important to know is that protection is only temporary and it tends to fade reasonably soon after breastfeeding finishes”.
While breastfeeding, however, the boost to the immune system is invaluable. If a mother is ill she will give her baby valuable protection against the effects of the illness. A woman starts making antibodies in breastmilk 20 minutes after ingesting a foreign virus, for instance after being sneezed on. Similarly, if she develops a stomach bug, she rapidly passes on immunity to the baby protecting it.
In January 2014 Dr. Jessen caused controversy when he said in Closer magazine that breastfeeding older children might risk them becoming psychologically dependent on their mother and could result in behavioural problems as they grow up. He also wrongly claimed the NHS only recommended breastfeeding for the first six months and implied that breastmilk was not important for a child’s immune system after this.
His comment that there is “no harm” in continuing to breastfeed, was very misleading as it implied breastfeeding was of no significance. This is far from accurate. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and mother. These extend well beyond the period of breastfeeding and there is evidence that the longer a baby is breastfed the greater the protection from ill health and the more positive the impact on long-term health for both mother and baby.
The Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine state “Claims that breastfeeding beyond infancy is harmful to mother or infant have absolutely no medical or scientific basis”.
Accurate information is needed
In his interview with The Sun Dr. Jessen quite rightly says that mothers need to be happy and should not feel like they have let their babies down if they haven’t breastfed. There are women who, for medical or personal reasons, don’t breastfeed and it is really important they feel supported in their decision and know it was the right choice in their individual circumstances.
However, there are also many mothers who had intended to breastfeed and did not get the help and support they needed to do so. In the long term, it is not helpful to anyone to minimise the differences between breast and formula milk. It doesn’t help women who wanted to breastfeed and it certainly doesn’t help future mothers. What they need is accurate information and the right support at the right time so that they can breastfeed as intended.
Support not pressure
La Leche League GB (LLLGB) is there to support women who want to breastfeed, without pressure or judgement. LLL Leaders know that breastfeeding is not always easy and that formula has a place for women who have made a definite decision not to breastfeed, or for the small percentage of babies who have no other way to be fed.
See our post When Breastfeeding Isn’t Working.
For women to breastfeed for as long as they intended, they need accurate information and appropriate help, as we work towards creating a society which accepts and supports breastfeeding.
 Wendy Jones, BSc, MSc, PhD, MRPharmS, Breastfeeding Network
 Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Press Release: ABM affirms breastfeeding beyond infancy as the biological norm. May 15, 2012. Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. Position on breastfeeding. Breastfeed Med. 2008;3(4):267-70.