The lie we've been told about breast-feeding

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Photo: Getty Images

A new study confirms what people like writer Hanna Rosin and Texas A&M professor Joan B. Wolf have been saying for years now: The benefits of breast-feeding have been overstated.

The study, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, is unique in the literature about breast-feeding because it looks at siblings who were fed differently during infancy.

That means the study controls for a lot of things that have marred previous breast-feeding studies. As the study’s lead author, Ohio State University assistant professor Cynthia Colen, said in a press release, “Many previous studies suffer from selection bias. They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother’s employment—things we know that can affect both breast-feeding and health outcomes.”

Colen’s study is also unique because she looked at children ages 4-14. Often breast-feeding studies only look at the effects on children in their first years of life. She looked at more than 8,000 children total, about 25 percent of whom were in “discordant sibling pairs,” which means one was bottle-fed and the other was breast-fed.

The study then measured those siblings for 11 outcomes, including BMI, obesity, asthma, different measures of intelligence, hyperactivity, and parental attachment.

When children from different families were compared, the kids who were breast-fed did better on those 11 measures than kids who were not breast-fed. But, as Colen points out, mothers who breast-feed their kids are disproportionately advantaged—they tend to be wealthier and better educated.

When children fed differently within the same family were compared—those discordant sibling pairs—there was no statistically significant difference in any of the measures, except for asthma. Children who were breast-fed were at a higher risk for asthma than children who drank formula.

Colen’s conclusion is the same one I came to when I wrote about a British pilot program that would pay women to breast-feed: Breast-feeding is good, but it shouldn’t be such a huge societal priority.

As Colen put it, “We need to take a much more careful look at what happens past that first year of life and understand that breast-feeding might be very difficult, even untenable, for certain groups of women. Rather than placing the blame at their feet, let’s be more realistic about what breast-feeding does and doesn’t do.”

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As more and more research comes out showing that the benefits of breast-feedingare modest at best, I’m starting to come around to the French feminist theorist Elisabeth Badinter’s views, which I once thought were overly radical and sort of bananas.

I’m all for women breast-feeding if that is what is right for their families, but as Badinter does, I am finding the cultural push for all women to breast-feed, no matter how difficult it is, to be more and more oppressive. Hopefully this study will give women who can’t or don’t want to breast-feed for whatever reason more ammunition to tell the breast-is-best purists to piss off.

-Slate

16 comments so far

  • Thank goodness - finally, a voice of reason. As a mother of a child who ultimately could not be breastfed due to a medical condition, I existed in a special kind of hell during the first year or so of my baby's life. The zealotry was at it's peak then. Everyone, from the ECN to random strangers in parents rooms in shopping centres, had an opinion on the way I fed my baby and they weren't afraid to share it - even if it wasn't asked for. My baby was placed on a prescription formula due to his health issues. Although I breastfed initially, by the time I got professional help from a paediatrician that specialised in my child's particular issue, it was pretty damn obvious that I needed to do something different, or my baby would die.

    Women just have to understand that while breast milk is an optimal food for most babies, the act of breastfeeding is difficult for many and does not always come naturally. In our society, we don't have the support structures in place for women to take the time often needed to establish breastfeeding. This is a fact for many, many women. We either need to change our entire societal structure to fix this, or learn to accept that for many women, breastfeeding is not the ideal way to feed their child, for lots of different reasons, and the 'purists' just need to learn to keep their nose out of everyone else's business.

    Commenter
    Mum2One
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 04, 2014, 7:37AM
    • Here here! Fantastic article,not all women are able to breastfeed! Including me, people act like its a choice not to breastfeed, some of us just can't ! If I have to explain to one more person that I'm not breastfeeding because I can't I will scream or cry or maybe both!

      Commenter
      Cat woman
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      March 04, 2014, 8:13AM
      • Hear! Hear!

        Commenter
        Maree
        Date and time
        March 04, 2014, 8:47AM
        • "Hopefully this study will give women who can’t or don’t want to breast-feed for whatever reason more ammunition to tell the breast-is-best purists to piss off."

          Or, hopefully, one day people will tune in to their own bodies, work out what is best for them, and stop needing studies, statistics, 'experts' and 'evidence' to pave the way for their every move.

          That people are clutching for science to prove that breast isn't necessarily best, and looking to use it as ammunition to tell other people where to go, is a pretty sad state of affairs.

          Commenter
          Kylie
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 04, 2014, 8:59AM
          • "That people are clutching for science to prove that breast isn't necessarily best, and looking to use it as ammunition to tell other people where to go, is a pretty sad state of affairs."

            It isn't the science that makes the situation a sad state of affairs, it's the people who can't keep their nose out of things that simply aren't their business or their opinions to themselves.

            Commenter
            Mum2One
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            March 04, 2014, 5:15PM
        • This article is no surprise to me. I have four kids and all were brestfed for some period of time, one as little as a a day versus six months and they are all healthy, vibrant kids. Each has got their own special talents. So mothers, do what works for you, breast, bottle or combo and your baby will be heathly and probably a lot of less stressed because you will be less stressed!!!

          Commenter
          JBD
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          March 04, 2014, 9:24AM
          • As a first time mum i breastfed my baby for 6 months, and she always screamed straight after a feed. I went to several health professionals to try to get to the bottom of it. They were all so pro-EBF that not one of them ever suggested i should follow up with a bit of formula. I realise now that it was probably because i didn't have enough milk and she was just still hungry.

            Commenter
            Susie
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            March 04, 2014, 11:22AM
            • Well said. All the drama and judgement needs to be taken away from this decision. Parents just need to do what they feel is right for them and their babies. I'm currently breast feeding my bub.... But also use formula when it's convenient. Constantly hear opinions from friends, family, strangers and medical professionals... each with something different to say. I listen and smile and continue to do what suits me and my baby. Everyone is different.

              Commenter
              AJ
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              March 04, 2014, 12:06PM
              • A study from 4 to 14? Seems to me a study should be lifelong, those breastfeeding purists as you call them are just mums trying to do what they think is best for their bubs, I had to dual feed as I had low milk and I never felt animosity for using a bottle from anyone I cared about who are the only ones that matter. Give this a break, there is near non existent support for those who wish to breastfeed and can't, their is a crucial 48 hours after bub is born where the support is needed to help feed, why not wright a story on the lack of help rather than trashing other Mums.

                Commenter
                TP
                Date and time
                March 04, 2014, 12:20PM
                • Agree there needs to be more emphasis on just how critical those first days are. I've had so many friends who've had to give up just because their breasts were too sore and cracked after baby latched on incorrectly. With the right help, breastfeeding can be great, but before you can even make the choice you need to get the technique right...

                  Commenter
                  Sydney girl
                  Date and time
                  March 05, 2014, 6:48AM

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