Wait, Breast Isn’t Best? New Study Claims Breastfeeding Benefits Have Been Overstated

Nursing my second child.
Nursing my second child.

I breastfed both my children. With the due date for my third child in only three days, I plan on giving it a whirl, yet again. Yes, giving it a whirl. (I’m not exactly thrilled about it.)

While I think it’s an honor to be able to nourish my child from the same body that grew him, I don’t necessarily view it as the “best” decision for me or my family. Which is why I think the whole “breast is best” mantra has jumped the shark.

Let’s be honest: breastfeeding clearly isn’t best for the mom whose milk doesn’t come in, it isn’t best for the mom who constantly suffers from a case of painful mastitis, and it certainly isn’t best for the mom who spends her lunch break at work crying and pumping in the bathroom stall.

So when you say “breast is best” what you’re specifically referring to is the actual scientific benefit of breast milk versus formula. But is breast milk really superior to formula? Does it really result in smarter, healthier, more well-adjusted children? New research says maybe not.

The first-of-its-kind study shows the benefits of breastfeeding may have been drastically overstated. As Jessica Grose notes on Slate, “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.”

Studying siblings is the key component here. Siblings raised in the same family — one who was breastfed and another who was bottle fed — were compared, as opposed to children from different families. This factor is hugely important because as the study’s lead author, Ohio State University assistant professor Cynthia Colen notes 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.” The study then measured those siblings for 11 outcomes, including BMI, obesity, asthma, different measures of intelligence, hyperactivity, and parental attachment. Guess what? There was no difference in the siblings who were breastfed over those who were bottle-fed. Slate breaks it down thusly:

“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.”

What does this tell us? That every breastfeeding study out there touting “breast is best” could be basing its results on factors that have nothing to do with actual mother’s milk versus formula, but instead are the result of children coming from different family environments? Maybe the breastfed kid’s environment was creative and happy, while this bottle-fed kid’s family environment was seriously lacking in parental guidance. Previous studies like this one by the Association of Schools of Public Health, have shown that, “Women with higher family incomes, those who had or whose partners had higher education levels, and women who had or whose partners had professional or executive occupations were more likely than their counterparts to breastfeed.” It only makes sense that their children would be more adjusted than children from a lower socioeconomic situation whether breast or bottle-fed, right? It’s also important to note that Colen’s study looked at more than 8,000 children ages 4 to 14, as opposed to only studying children during their first year of life as is often the case in other breastfeeding studies.

Colen’s conclusion is a breastfeeding theory I’ve long subscribed to. She says, “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.”

Shame, guilt, cracked nipples, mastitis and sleep-deprived moms doesn’t sound very appealing, now does it? What’s best is what benefits both baby, mom and the family unit as a whole. The push to force moms to breastfeed, no matter the cost, is akin to bullying, and it’s time we as a society rethink the way we go about educating new moms on breastfeeding.

Jessica Shortall writes over on The Shriver Report:

“This ‘breast is best’ thing has taken on a tinge of accusation and a tone of judgment. ‘Breast is best’ no longer comes across only as: “…so leave the poor woman alone who is trying to nurse her hungry baby on a park bench.” It no longer comes across as: “provide a lactation room for new mothers at your workplace one that does not require her to sit on a germy toilet while she produces food for a baby.” Lately, it’s starting to sound a bit like:  “…so if you don’t do it, you obviously don’t love your baby or want what’s best for he/she.”

As a society, instead of condemning women for their personal parenting choices, we should trust them to make decisions that work best for their families — including themselves — which Shortall points out is often the most “neglected person in the whole picture.” At the very least, this new study should serve as a strong counterpoint for moms choosing not to breastfeed to fend off the judgment of nurses, family, friends and a society who think they’re not considering what’s best for their baby.  

Image: Monica Bielanko

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