"The researches of so many eminent scientific men have thrown so much darkness upon the subject that if they continue their researches we shall soon know nothing."

- Artemus Ward

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Babies - then and now

(John, March 2010)
Yesterday on my way to art class I stopped by to visit with my 7-month-old grandson, John. John is clearly the cutest baby on the face of the earth at this time. :-) He's a sturdy little guy, and at 30+ inches long and 21+ pounds he's big for his age. But though you seem to hear a lot about the obesity epidemic, even in infants, John is clearly not fat. Sure he has baby fat, but just the normal round cheeks and chubby thighs of a well-nourished infant.

I'm so impressed with the care and attention John's parents give him, and how determined they are to do the right things to raise him in a happy and healthy and well-nourished manner. Yet don't most of us wish to do the same thing? I know that was certainly my own goal in raising my son, but the paths of knowledge I had available to me in 1978 were not even close to those available to new parents today.

John has been breast-fed from birth, but he is now also a fearless eater, willingly trying new things. His parents use a baby food grinder to puree their various adult foods into things for John to try. One of his favorites is a mixed banana-and-liver puree. Did baby food grinders exist in 1978 when my son Brock was born? My sister, whose oldest was born in 1981, says she used the food grinders for all of her children.

Yet when Brock was born in 1978 I had never heard of such a thing. I had never seen a baby food mill, my pediatrician never suggested such a thing, no one else that I knew who had babies or small children had ever used such a thing. Babies were fed "baby food". I was, then as now, widely read and had dozens of books on child-rearing and feeding, and none of those had anything about baby food mills in them. In that pre-google era it was sometimes hard to know what you didn't know.

But I "knew" some things about the way I wanted to raise my child. I knew I wanted to breast-feed him for one thing. Luckily, in 1978, that was a relatively easy thing to do. I was a breast-fed baby myself, and when my mom chose to do that with me in 1952 she was regarded as almost mentally deranged. In her solidly middle-class world this was not "done". Babies were almost exclusively formula-fed, and she had to fight tooth-and-nail against her doctor and the hospital, who were determined to give her injections to dry up her milk. Mom was really quite a pioneer in the back-to-breastfeeding movement.

But by 1978 the movement was well underway. When I was admitted to the maternity ward I was matter-of-factly asked "breast or bottle" so that I could be paired with a roommate doing the same thing. We breast-feeders were a minority still, but a very sizable one.

I had also, in my reading, come across reports stating that babies who were breast-fed exclusively, with no solids foods, up to the age of 6 months, were less likely to become obese as adults than babies who were introduced to solid foods earlier. So I had decided on breast-milk only for at least 6 months. But I didn't accomplish this goal. Brock was a big baby at birth, 8 lbs. 14 oz., and he continued to grow steadily on his breast-milk diet, so by the time he was 4 months old the pediatrician felt he needed to start getting introduced to solid foods.

So I started slowly introducing him to "baby foods". It seems amazing to me now - but back then baby foods were almost all heavily adulterated with sugar and salt. Heck, maybe food coloring too. But I was totally determined *not* to fill my baby with sucrose. Despite my incomplete knowledge even back in 1978 I had the nebulous idea that things like table sugar and white flour were bad for your health, and I was determined to keep them away from my baby as long as possible.

By 1978 baby foods that were sugar and salt free were just beginning to appear on the market, and I was a ruthless reader of labels. So Brock got nothing with added sugars or salt, his baby food being supplemented by foods that were easily soft or easily mashable - gently scrambled eggs, unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, mashed sweet potato. And I continued to breast feed.

My pediatrician told me that babies were not capable of digesting cow's milk prior to about 8 months of age, so that if I stopped breast-feeding before then I would need to go to formula. But after 8 months I could transition him to cow's milk. But I was not to give him full-fat cow's milk! I was told this was too fatty for babies. Fortunately he didn't suggest skim milk. He did tell me, quite correctly, that babies *need* fat in their diets - but that 1% or 2% milk would be fine.

So again I was determined to breast-feed past 8 months as I didn't want to expose my son to that "evil" formula. I began weaning him, finally, at 10 months, in preparation for my return to the work force, and we transitioned to 2% milk as I was fearful about going against my doctor's advice about the full-fat milk, but the 1% was just too thin and watery for me to want to give it to my child.

But Brock thrived and was a healthy baby - and had the usually baby chubbiness without being the least bit obese. He was a normal, healthy weight.

And in fact I came to appreciate the US baby food market even more when I took Brock up to his first summer vacation in Canada in August of 1979. Baby food in jars does travel well when unopened, and I took a big cache of it up to Canada with me. And I was happy I had done it as baby food without added salt and sugar didn't exist in Canada! I tried several supermarkets and could not find a jar or fruit or veggies that didn't list sugar as one of the principal ingredients.

(Brock, August 1979)

So Brock existed on a lot of meat along with the fruit and veggies jars I had brought, supplemented by the foods he could eat from the adult world. He was able to handle chunkier textures by then, and surprised me by eating almost all the blueberries it had taken me a good 30-40 minutes to pick.

So how does this early feeding affect us? I was breast-fed, and was such a skinny beanpole of a child that my pediatrician accused my mom of not feeding me properly. But then I hit puberty and began to gain weight, and have struggled with weight issues my entire adult life, even though up to age 11 I was about as skinny as I could be.

(Debbie - 1963)

And my son was the same. He was a skinny little stringbean also until he hit about the age of 10 or 11. And then he began to gain weight and has struggled with weight issues as an adult also.

Of course there is more to diet than mere infant food. My childhood diet was awful - full of white bread and sugar and margarine and processed food galore. I tried to do better by my own child, but still fed him plenty of whole-wheat bread. And while I tried to avoid white sugars and limit other sugars we did have lots of brown sugar and maple syrup and honey. I remembered my own "cookies and milk" childhood snacks and wanted to make the same for my son. So I was always baking Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies - except instead of white flour I use half whole wheat flour and half old-fashioned rolled oats. And instead of the 3/4 cups of white sugar and 3/4 cups of brown I only used a cup of brown, and I added in tons of chopped nuts, and I used to add it lots of dried fruit.

Okay, I *thought* I was being healthier! Yet when my sister was babysitting for my son one time she made Tollhouse cookies with him and just followed the recipe as written - white flour, the mixture of white and brown sugars. "Yes, *real* chocolate chip cookies!" my son exclaimed.

So what determines these things? Due to health problems my mom was unable to breast-feed either of my two younger sisters, so they were both bottle babies, and both grew up eating the same diet I ate as a child. Yet both remain slender into their 50s and neither has ever had a problem with obesity.

Yet I also have the feeling that maybe baby formula was actually better then that it is now. That was prior to the high fructose corn syrup era, so I know the formula was not adulterated with that. It was also prior to the vilification of tropical oils, so might have contained coconut oil also. But I don't know what it did contain. Maybe google will help me out. :-)

So here is the $64,000 question. Will John's diet keep him fit and healthy as he grows into a child and a young man? Only time will tell, of course, and who knows what new nutritional knowledge will come our way over the next 20 years?

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