March 2, 2014 Leave a comment
Yes, it is. Breast milk is perfectly evolved to provide the nutrition that human babies need. Modern science just can’t quite match that– at least not yet. But the benefits of breast milk have surely been oversold based on studies where middle/upper-middle class women have been much more likely to breast feed than lower SES women. I was very intrigued by the latest study that controls for this, reported in Slate:
A new study confirms what people like our own Hanna Rosin and Texas A&Mprofessor 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.”
First of all, I understand “do not” statistically control for factors such as race, age, income, etc., but what’s with “cannot statistically control.” It’s called a regression model. What am I missing here. And as for “do not” control. Why we somebody even publish such a profoundly flawed study.
Anyway, on to the cool new methodology:
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 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.
Why am I so intrigued by this study? This is our family. Our first two, David and Alex, each received less than 2 months of breast feeding (severe allergies to some undetermined factor in Kim’s diet that was resolved when on super-pricey hypoallergenic formula) whereas Evan and Sarah both had at least a year. Now, Alex has a rare disease, so it’s not a fair comparison in his case, but it is quite clear that by the age of three both Evan and Sarah have well out-performed their older siblings on some of these measures. Our family is ultimately an N of 1 and I think that 95%+ of the difference is just the genetic lottery, but it has always been interesting to me.
Here’s the article’s conclusion:
As more and more research comes out showing that the benefits of breast-feedingare modestat 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.
Now, I don’t know about “for whatever reason.” I think most of us parents have come across the way-overagressive breast-feeding pushers who clearly go to far, but even if the benefits are only modest, I still think there’s nothing wrong with seeing breast feeding as an ideal. I would suggest we should just be far more understanding of people who don’t meet that ideal. I guess the problem is that it is all too often damn hard to get people to be understanding.