Recently, I was given the opportunity to review a new book: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know Can Hurt Your Child, by Dr. Susan Markel. I was interested in this book because it promoted a non-mainstream approach to child-rearing, and it was written by a board-certified pediatrician: someone who truly knows what pediatricians know and how they practice, and was choosing to speak out about their shortcomings. I was sent a copy of this book to facilitate my review.
The book is divided into three main sections: discovery (basics), emotion (discipline, communication, develpment), and maintaining health (vitamin D, milk, allergies, ear infections, vaccines) information.
I found the book very interesting. There were several sections I agreed with. Dr. Markel is extremely pro-breastfeeding and provides a lot of information on why breastfeeding is the best choice, and why formula is not. She writes about normal breastfed-babies growth rates, jaundice, the vitamin K injection (not necessary for healthy breastfed babies), the reason most doctors say babies are iron-deficient and why they’re not (again, if breastfed), brain development, and a long section about individual health benefits. She’s insistent that breastfeeding is more than “just a parenting choice,” which I strongly agree with. She discusses the economic and public health issues involved in choosing to (or not to) breastfeed, and doesn’t waver on her stance, which is excellent.
There were facts sprinkled throughout the book that I hadn’t heard before, even on topics that I’m interested in and generally know a decent amount about. She cited quite a lot of research (there are somewhat lengthy end notes after each chapter) completed by many major medical bodies to support what she was saying. She explained how the research was sometimes at odds with the conclusions drawn or practices put into play. It was very nice to see this information.
Dr. Markel also discussed all of the newborn procedures, why many are done and why they are often unnecessary, and explained what is really normal in a newborn. This is great information. There were a few small points I didn’t quite agree with, but nothing that jumped out hugely.
She also talked about co-sleeping and baby-wearing as very positive things. She cites plenty of evidence that babies are healthier and happier when kept close, day and night. She actually speaks out against the “Back to Sleep” campaign a little bit, citing unintended consequences like “flat head syndrome,” which can cause minor brain damage if not checked and fixed, and can require expensive helmets. She noted that being carried can reduce reflux, as well as help babies develop their muscles better. She is very clear that babies will become independent when they are ready, not when we force them (something about which I also agree very strongly).
Later in the book, Dr. Markel examined several newer vaccines and explained why they were created and why some are not necessary (like chicken pox, for example; it was created to increase productivity at work! The theory being that if children didn’t get chicken pox, their parents would miss less work to care for them while they were sick). She approaches vaccines generally from the perspective that they should only be used to decrease the spread of serious, virulent illnesses. She implies that we should not use vaccines that do not meet that goal, like tetanus, varicella, rubella, and others. She actually does not discuss any that she is specifically in favor of; she only discusses ones she feels are not particularly necessary. I get the impression that she leans more towards anti-vaccine than pro- but she does not come out and say this.
I truly love her section on ear infections. This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I see people constantly taking their children to the doctor with ear infections and going home with antibiotics. Surprise — their children have another ear infection a few weeks later! Dr. Markel discusses many studies that show that antibiotics are not beneficial in treating ear infections. When doctors used a wait-and-see approach, up to 90% of ear infections cleared up on their own, within about the same amount of time as if antibiotics were used! Most ear infections are also caused by viruses (like, after a recent cold), so antibiotics (which work only on bacteria) are useless. Also, since antibiotics kill the good bacteria in the gut, it leaves the child vulnerable to future infections. That’s why children who are constantly taking antibiotics to ward off illness are also the ones constantly getting sick again and again. She even discusses why tubes, the common solution to repeat ear infections, are not necessary! There is so much good information in this section, you need to read this book if only to read this section!
There are also good sections on child development, positive discipline, attention disorders (she is anti-medication), allergies, asthma, and more. I found all of these very good.
The one major point on which I disagree is nutrition. And this is crucial. She is careful to say that we need to start eating more whole foods, and that we need to stop eating processed foods, artificial flavors and colors, hydrogenated oils, etc. And she is right about all of that. But then she goes on to recommend a low-fat diet with “few animal products, and then lean poultry and fish on occasion.” (Paraphrasing.) She vilifies saturated fat, notes that animal products cause disease, and goes on to write a chapter about how people should never consume cow’s milk under any circumstances. She recommends a vegetarian diet for children once weaned.
I cannot disagree more with this stance.
Vegetarian diets do not provide adequate protein, fat, cholesterol, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin(s) B, and so on. Beta-carotene, the form of vitamin A found in plants, is not well converted vitamin A, and is even less well converted without enough fat in the diet. It is a fat-soluble vitamin (meaning it dissolves and is used properly only in the presence of fat)! B vitamins are sorely lacking in all plant sources; grass-fed beef and beef liver are among the best sources, especially for B12 (without enough B12, anemia is likely).
Dr. Markel does not draw any distinction between factory-farmed animal products and those which are produced traditionally, out on pasture, without the use of hormones or antibiotics. I generally dismiss any research or opinion on animal products outright if it doesn’t make this distinction, and this research was no different. Dr. Markel even goes as far as to say that cows’ natural hormones are dangerous to humans! However, it should be noted that modern Holstein cows (which make up the vast majority of the U.S. commercial flock) are bred to be heavy milk producers, and as such, their natural hormone levels are quite a bit higher than the traditional breeds. In completely ignoring the difference between modern production methods in animal products and traditional animal products, Dr. Markel does everyone a great disservice. Traditionally-raised animal products are crucial to human health. Vilifying fat, too, does a disservice; growing children need fat, as she so clearly points out in her chapters on breastfeeding!
There is also the issue of soy. Dr. Markel actually contradicts herself when discussing soy. She has a small section on why you should not consume soy, except for traditionally produced (fermented) products. This is correct. However, she goes on to say that tofu is a traditionally fermented product, as is soy milk, and recommends these to parents to increase their children’s nutrition and protein intakes! This is incredibly wrong. Tempeh, miso, and natto, as well as certain types of soy sauce are the only true fermented soy products, are healthy to consume, but should be in small quantities. They are intended as condiments, not main dishes.
While you can take away her main “don’t” message — don’t eat artificial foods, packaged foods, foods containing colors, flavors, factory fats, etc. — you cannot pay too much attention to her “do” list. Her research is clearly flawed and she presents only part of the answer, and dangerously ignores the role of healthy animal products and fats in a growing child’s diet.
In general, I enjoyed reading this book. I appreciated her willingness to take on a lot of non-mainstream topics, like exclusive breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping, non-drug approaches to ADHD, etc. I appreciated that she was willing to say, “Your pediatrician doesn’t know enough about nutrition to prevent illness. Your pediatrician’s job is fix your child if something goes wrong.” (paraphrasing again) The only truly bad part was the nutrition section, which stands out as more generally mainstream advice. It seems that she honestly knows a lot in the areas in which she practices — antibiotics, vaccines, and other “health measures” — and does not know a lot about nutrition and other “preventative” measures. In many areas it is a truly useful guide. Taken as a part of a parent’s research, and not the final word (as with any source!), it’s worth the read.
Would you like to win a copy?
- Visit Dr. Markel’s website and tell me which section of the book you are most interested in
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That’s it! Please leave each entry in a SEPARATE comment. This giveaway will end on Friday, November 19th, and the winner will be selected on Saturday, November 20th.