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Could breastfeeding benefits be overstated?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
A new study contends breastfeeding benefits have been based on flawed studies.

Breast-feeding is a touted as a way to boost immunity and IQ, promote maternal bonding and more. But researchers have been suggesting the benefits may be overstated. In a new study, Ohio State University assistant professor Cynthia Colen and colleagues challenge the notion that "breast is best". The scientist contend that breastfeeding may not offer all of the benefits suggested by biased and potentially flawed studies.

A 2011 analysis published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) also showed the health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for 6-months lacks scientific evidence.

Long-term breastfeeding benefits challenged

For their study, Colen and colleagues compared data from 1800 siblings who were either breast or formula fed.

According to Womenshealth.gov, breastfeeding can help lower an infant’s risk of a variety of diseases including obesity, diabetes, asthma, respiratory infections, necrotizing enterocolitis, diarrhea, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), possibly atopic dermatitis that is a skin rash and perhaps childhood leukemia.

Colen and colleagues looked past the first year of life, studying children age 4 to 14. According to the researchers analysis, breast-feeding doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to most of the health benefits mentioned, with the exception of asthma. Breastfeeding seems to boost the chances of the disease.

For the investigation 11 health outcomes of breastfeeding were measured including BMI, obesity, asthma, different measures of intelligence, hyperactivity and parental attachment.

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Children who were breastfed fared better, but Colen points out women who breast-feed their infants are often socioeconomically advantaged. When the researchers compared breastfed to formula fed siblings in the same family, little difference was seen in health outcomes.

"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 said in a press release.

One of Colen’s issues seems to be there may be a stigma associated with women who fail to breast-feed that could, for some women, be impossible.

The stigma of not breastfeeding

"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."

She contends there are too many variables that should be addressed, such as family income, parental education and race and ethnicity that need to be taken into account when conducting studies that affect public health policies.

She also suggests less attention to breast-feeding might be important. “...If we really want to improve maternal and child health in this country, let’s also focus on things that can really do that in the long term – like subsidized day care, better maternity leave policies and more employment opportunities for low-income mothers that pay a living wage, for example.”

The final analysis that looked at breastfeeding's impact on body mass index (BMI); obesity; asthma; hyperactivity; parental attachment; behavior and vocabulary development, reading recognition, math skills, intelligence and scholastic ability found no difference between children who were bottle fed and breastfed. The study did not address the health benefits to mothers nor the economic benefits to families of breastfeeding.

What do you think? Does Colen’s study prove the benefits of breastfeeding are overstated? Would less focus on breastfeeding help women and lead to health policies that are more important? The finding is already generating some negative feedback from consumers who have suggested the research is nothing more than "data mining", based on self-reporting and does not mention the length of time infants were breastfed relative to health outcomes.