In defence of hunger.

Imagine, if you will, the fuming talk-back caller, brusquely unclipping the earring and placing phone to ear…….

Whilst out running this morning on a dirt track through the bush I encountered a small group of young kids, preschoolers, on push-along bikes, guided by an adult who was walking alongside Initially I couldn’t figure out what was unusual about the picture – I know one of the kids, and so I know the group emanated from a small, local childcare centre. What was strange, I realised, is that none of the children had a backpack. Nor did the adult walking with them. The track is long, and probably the kids will be out for around an hour or more, and yet they did not appear to be traveling with a ‘rider’ of fruit segments, individually wrapped biscuits and enough water to irrigate 10 hectares of canola.

I remember, in those long ago days when I was shepherding small children around, that parents seemed to provision each and every excursion, no matter how small, in the manner of a colonial overland expedition, complete with dining table, carpets and a wide selection of exotic fruits.

“It helps to keep them going” they would say, which is another way of saying, “I’m allergic to telling my child that their mild discomfort is not life threatening”. Poor behaviour was a sign the child was hungry, and could be immediately solved by wedging something in the noise hole.

I realise this makes me sound like I am exactly one hundred years old, but there are a lot of things going on here. Firstly, we’re teaching kids that they can’t handle, and should not expect to cope with, mild discomfort. Secondly, we’re also teaching them that emotional reactions, ‘I don’t want to bike any more’ can be solved with treats. These do not seem like good things to me.

In my first year of university my anthropology lecturer attempted to impress on us the importance of noticing the weird things in our own culture, exoticising ourselves, if you will. His example was water bottles. Five years ago, he claimed, students could sit through a 2 hour lecture without needing a drink of water. Now, [he gestured wildly] every desk was festooned with water bottles, and the idea that a young adult would go through the day without flushing themselves with two litres of water was quite untenable. Were we sitting in a psychology lecture, the explanation would quite naturally follow that that these young adults were simply regressing to the suckling stage, unable to cope with the exigencies of post larval life. We all giggled, once again, at the straightforward folly of studying psychology.

Which brings me to baby formula.

The point of baby formula, in case you’re wondering, is to fill babies up with slowly digestible slurry that resembles wallpaper paste with yummy taurine, so they sleep fitfully through the night. Anthropology would not hold with this – newborns are designed, quite obviously, to be breastfed, the fourth trimester and all that. Formula is obviously important for those whose mothers can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, but that’s not how it is used or marketed. The secret sauce of formula is the thing that everyone knows but no one talks about – your baby, instead of waking every hour or three for a few mouthfuls of breastmilk, will instead sleep for much, much longer. The breastfed baby learns to experience hunger and importantly, not to panic about it. This baby will wake its mother, many times.

The formula fed baby, less so. The connection between formula feeding and childhood obesity is contentious and not settled, but it’s exactly outrageous to suggest that such a radical departure from the normal method of mother-baby feeding might have some negative consequences.

Hunger is normal. We ignore it at our peril.

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