Recent, widely disseminated news reports claim that the benefits of breastfeeding have been drastically overstated. This is a startling assertion. It contradicts prolific and long-standing research that has formed the foundation for pro-breastfeeding policies and recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Institutes of Medicine, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services, and many, many more organizations concerned about the health of our children.
What is behind these news reports? A study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine compared breastfed and non-breastfed siblings (ages 4-14) with one another, using pre-existing data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The conclusion was that breastfeeding has no effect on child well-being. But it’s not that simple.
Some points to consider:
- Children under age 4 were excluded from the study, so all of the known breastfeeding benefits to babies and children through three years old remain unchallenged by this study (despite the wide-reaching wording of the headline).
- The study examined 11 different outcomes – body mass index (BMI), obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, parental attachment, behavioral compliance, reading comprehension, vocabulary recognition, math ability, memory based intelligence, and scholastic competence. Only three of these outcomes, BMI, obesity and asthma, are among the primary benefits of breastfeeding as documented by the AAP and the other previously listed pro-breastfeeding organizations. (Other benefits are reduced risk of diabetes, ear infections, respiratory tract infections, diarrhea, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Mothers who breastfeed their babies have lower rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, blood loss after birth and postpartum depression).
- The study ignores differences between siblings up to the age of 4, such as diet and amount of exercise (which would all contribute to differences in BMI, obesity and asthma). And as any parent will tell you, those differences are often vast.
- This study defines breastfeeding as “breastfed him/her for any length of time.” No differentiation is made, for example, between a child who was breastfed for one day or one who was breastfed for one year or more.
So why all of the attention on this one, flawed study? One answer might be that people are attracted to controversy, and pitting mother against mother is one way to generate it. But with something as important as the health of our children at stake, media outlets would be wise to take a deeper look before they disparage breastfeeding. Already, only 77% of new mothers in this country try to breastfeed, 44% are breastfeeding their babies at age 6 months, and only 16% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months. This is despite worldwide recommendations that for 100% of babies, breast milk should be the only food from birth through age 6 months, and breastfeeding with supplementation should be continued for a year or more.
Mothers need all the support and encouragement they can get for breastfeeding, not discouragement based on questionable research.