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A boozy attack on working-class mums

New claims that drinking while pregnant and bottle-feeding are bad for baby provide another excuse to bash 'bad mothers'.

Emily Hill

Topics Politics

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As if anyone with eyes or ears hadn’t got the message already, more evidence has emerged this week to confirm that drinking during pregnancy is ‘bad’ and breastfeeding baby is ‘good’. Unfortunately for militant lactivists and teetotallers, the new evidence verges on the absurdist. Two new studies ‘prove’ that drinking during pregnancy makes children ‘naughty’ and that breastfeeding during babyhood makes children ‘cleverer’, without the scientists taking any other variable into consideration.

The drinking mother/’naughty’ children association emerges from a report in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry. Dr Brian D’Onofrio of Indiana University conducted a study that found that ‘where mothers drank during one pregnancy but not in a subsequent one, the child exposed to the alcohol in the womb displayed worse behaviour, suggesting that the problems were probably caused by the drinking rather than genetics or bad parenting.’ Dr D’Onofrio explained that ‘the children were given a score according to their behaviour. Those born to mothers who drank less than once a week during pregnancy had scores close to zero while mothers who drank between five and six days a week had children with scores averaging 2.5.’ (1)

Does no one else think this all sounds a bit tenuous? Children’s bad behaviour can be put down to a lot of things, and, in the first place, how can it be defined? If a child has a lot of younger siblings he or she may play up in order to claw back some attention. And who is to say that the younger, non-alcohol affected children might not behave in a similarly ‘naughty’ way when they reach a similar age? ‘Naughty’ could be anything from nabbing an extra biscuit, to reading by torchlight past bedtime to serious naughtiness, like setting fire to things, and without greater information it seems extraordinary that the report was deemed worth reporting on.

The evidence that kids who are breastfed are not only supposedly better insured against obesity, heart disease or any other illness you can dream up, but cleverer too, is even more tenuous than the link between drinking and naughtiness. At least the idea is ultimately based on a study conducted on a proper scientific basis. Researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry studied the effect of breastfeeding on IQ. ‘By looking at more than 3,000 children in Britain and New Zealand, they found that [breastfeeding] raised intelligence by an average of seven IQ points if the children had a particular version of a gene called FADS2. This gene comes in two versions, C and G; 90 per cent of the children in the study had at least one copy of the C version of FADS2, and had a higher IQ if they were breastfed. The remainder had only the G version of the gene and showed no IQ change from breastfeeding.’ (2) Ultimately, then, whether breastfeeding works its IQ magic or not depends on the genetic makeup of the infant.

But one wonders what else would have worked the IQ trick. Playing a bit of Bach into Mummy’s tummy, eating greater quantities of organic produce throughout gestation, sending baby to a colourful, interactive Montessori school, perhaps. In short, it might not be the breastfeeding that is the cause of this (slightly) elevated IQ but being the child of the kind of woman that reads reports about breastfeeding. According to the office of National Statistics, 88 per cent of mothers who were ‘over 18 when they completed their full-time education’ breastfed their babies, while only 54 per cent of mothers ‘who completed their full-time education by the age of 16′ breastfed their babies.

There are all sorts of variables that can help IQ, and it’s highly likely that most of them will have a more radical impact than breastfeeding. Maybe, if we taxed our own IQ, we’d see it’s not the breastfeeding but the opportunities and living conditions these women have; breastfeeding mothers (who are more likely to be well-educated and middle-class) tend to provide a better education for their children, while non-breastfeeding mums (who are more often than not working-class) have to put up with the cut-price version of education the government deems good enough for them.

Yet still the report will become just one more arrow in the quiver of militant lactivist propaganda, ready to impale some working-class mother who doesn’t breastfeed – and then gives her tot rusks when it reaches an age, instead of mashed-up organic banana. Thus the lack of breast milk, and the lack of organic banana, can then be used to explain why her children don’t do so well in GCSE examinations at 16 – it’s all to do with her kids’ milk-impaired IQ and nothing to do with the shoddiness of the school system through which they have been processed.

Likewise, working-class children’s ‘naughty’ behaviour in the infant class can be blamed on the fact that their mothers like to drink, and had a glass of Guinness most Fridays during pregnancy – and not on the fact that the school syllabus forced upon their harassed teachers precludes any sort of student-teacher relations that might promote non-naughty behaviour. Waving a tamborine at children in sink schools, and trying to get them to ‘play creatively’ – instead of trying to get their brains ticking over learning something of interest, and telling them to get on with it when their attention wanders – is only going to promote classroom anarchy, not diminish it because the children are ‘engaging’ in some governmental utopian ‘fun’.

This is the new morality dressed up as science. Old moral arguments about a woman’s place being in the home, and a woman who drinks being an abomination, have just been recycled in the new caring, sharing society. It’s no longer just bad, it’s ‘bad for you’ – and it’s no longer just ‘bad for you’, its ‘bad for baby’.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and freelances for Dazed and Confused.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill told militant lactivists to get their hands off Jordan’s breasts. Jennie Bristow denied the idea that pregnancy will damage your child. Jane Sandeman asked: Do we need the ‘right to breastfeed’? Ellie Lee asked: Is bottle-feeding a mark of bad motherhood? Mick Hume said you shouldn’t lose your bottle in the face of militant lactivism. Or read more at spiked issue Breastfeeding.

(1) Mum’s who drink have ‘naughty children’, Daily Telegraph, 6 November 2007

(2) Breastfeeding can cut risk of heart disease, say researchers, Guardian, 6 November 2007

(3) National Statistics

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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