March 6 2014
Surprise! Breastfeeding Benefits Have Been Hyped
Carrie L. Lukas
Women who have had babies in recent years have all been lectured from doctors and health professions, as well as earnest friends, family members, and nosy strangers, about the benefits of breastfeeding. Not surprisingly government is a part of the mix, as health officials produce pamphlets encouraging women to breastfeed and proselytizing about all of the wondrous benefits that stem from it (fewer allergies, less obesity, maybe even enhanced IQ). Also surprising no one, Mayor Bloomberg was among those promoting the most heavy-handed tactics, proposing that New York City hospitals sequester formula and require nurses to lecture new moms who request formula.
I've written before about how this goes overboard. There are legitimate reasons why women can't breastfeed or don't want to. There is no reason to pile on the guilt and make them feel like they are dooming junior to a life of underachievement because they turned to formula.
And now new studies are calling the health benefits into question. The problem has always been that women who breastfeed tend to be different from those who start with formula, in terms of education and income. Researchers try to capture those differences by controlling for such factors, but it's tough to capture everything. So researchers have now compared siblings within the same family who were breast-fed with those who were formula-fed. And when doing so, they could find no statistical difference in outcomes, other than that breastfeeding seems to reduce incidence of asthma. No differences in BMI, measures of intelligence, bonding with Mom, or other health measures. So much for the miracle-potion breast milk.
Few women have more of a vested interest in the wonders of breastfeeding than I do: I've breastfed my four children for more than a total of seven years and I'm still going. And I don't regret breastfeeding even if there aren't any particular health benefits. I've saved money on formula, it's been incredibly convenient (no bottles to make or clean), and I've enjoyed that special time with my babies.
But women should know the real facts and not be cajoled into what can be a time-consuming endeavor based on false pretenses. Particularly the government should get out of the business of trying to influence parents' behavior, in particular since their guidance often turns out to be wrong. The bottom line, as it so often is, is that Moms and Dads should relax, do the best they can for their kids, but recognize that most kids are going to turn out okay so long as Mom and Dad just rely on basic common sense.