The importance of maternal nutrition and effects of breastfeeding on long-term health.

There is this old Chinese lady I like chatting with every time I pick Amanda up from school. Having food on the brain at least two thirds of the time (I am asleep the other third), I like knowing what people have for dinner and so, our conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: Po Po (Granny), what delicious food are you cooking for dinner tonight?

I swear this line sounds a lot more natural in Mandarin.

Po Po: I’m cooking fish and chicken and beef…I haven’t thought about it yet (but) I’ll look into the fridge and decide later.

What is evident in her response is a simple joy at being able to regale me with the types of meat she has to cook with. It isn’t until many conversations later that I understand why she positively glows when rattling off a list of dead animals.

One day, observing her granddaughter and my Amanda on the swings, the normal “what are you having for dinner conversation?” turns to breastfeeding.

Po Po: My granddaughter was breastfed for 9 months. That’s why she’s so healthy.

Me: Did her mother stop to return to work?

Po Po: Yes, she had to return to work.

Me: I breastfed Amanda for 3 years and she is much healthier than me. While her father and I are shivering with layers upon layers of clothes in winter, she’s walking about in only her undies, oblivious to the cold.

Po Po: It’s the same with my granddaughter.

Me: Did you breastfeed your children?

Po Po: I breastfed all of them.

Me: Then are they all healthy?

The reason I ask this is because even though there have been many studies done on the positive effects of breastfeeding, none are longitudinal. 5 people discussed in the playground of a school is hardly a study but I was curious to know what I’ve not been able to ask anyone else: what lifelong effects does breastfeeding have on a person? Will Amanda always be as healthy and robust as she is now?

Po Po: My eldest 3 are very healthy. They’ve always been very healthy. My youngest 2 are somewhat sickly.

Me: Why the difference? I thought you breastfed all of them.

Po Po: The difference was  that I was younger.

Me: I don’t get you. Does (maternal) age matter?

Po Po: I didn’t have enough to eat when I was breastfeeding them.

Me: What do you mean? Did you have rice and biscuits?

Po Po: Those were tough times – for them and for me. We only had “xi fan” (watery porridge) cooked together with a type of grass.

She goes on to describe this grass to me, how it is harvested and dried, then added to the watery porridge, but I don’t know what it is because I’ve never seen it, much less eaten it.

Me: Weren’t there any biscuits?

Po Po: None. “Xi fan” was all we had every meal.

Me: How about milk? Or soy beans?

Po Po: There was no milk and no soy beans.

Me: Then what if one wanted to “Bao Yang” (nourish and nurture the body)? What could one have?

She looks at me like I’m retarded.

Po Po: There was nothing to eat! At the most, we could get some carrots. But the place selling carrots was very far away.

Me: Were you breastfed?

Po Po: I wasn’t.

Me: Then are you healthy?

Po Po: I was healthy until mid-life when I started having giddy turns. I’m been on Chinese medication since the middle of my life. My children get the pills for me.

Me: Your children are very good, very filial. I was never breastfed either and because of that, I’ve always been a very sickly person.

I’ve had pneumonia, glandular fever, strep throat which morphed into fever and rashes, years where I have consecutive bouts of the cold that go for months on end, on top of on-going irritable bowel syndrome – this despite consuming a King’s ransom in supplements.

Me: I find consuming very nutritious food to be very helpful, but I don’t think I’ll ever have half of Amanda’s health. This can’t be helped.

Po Po: Why didn’t your mother breastfeed you?

Me: I am not a first child and she gave up trying after she put the first on the bottle. I don’t blame her – people didn’t know as much in those days and Milk Companies are constantly pushing formula onto mothers in our part of the world. Mothers mistakenly think that formula is as good as breast milk when that is most untrue.

I’m sure there are bottle-fed babies who have better health than I do, but those I know are all like me: they catch the first bug that comes along and all too often have digestive problems that dog them for life. Anyway, what I learned from this conversation with Po Po is that breastfeeding is good, BUT only if the mother has adequate nutrition. If she doesn’t then the net sum result is possibly worse than bottle-feeding. This is not to say one can’t be on a completely plant-based diet and breast-feed successfully; a Vego friend of mine is a mother of triplets and she’s done just that, but more effort has to be put into eating well if one eats plants exclusively and breastfeeds.

As for what Po Po’s life was like in Mao’s China, you’ll get an inkling from watching this poignant movie:

I dare say the characters in this movie had more to eat.