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March 7, 2014
Mommy war: Breastfeeding benefits overstated?
A media-fueled mommy war over a new breastfeeding study was exploded across Twitter and Facebook. Last week, a colleague and friend of mine emailed me the new study with a note, “See, I told you. It’s not worth it.”
The study she sent me was, of course, the widely reported sibling study by Colen and Ramey that concluded breastfeeding has no effect on long-term child well-being. As for “it’s not worth it,” she was referred to my decision on quitting my journalism job. I left my position as a staff writer when my son was six months old just to say no to a working environment that’s very unfriendly to nursing mothers.
Now I had to look into the study. After all, it’s the first time that some researchers studied the long-term impacts of breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding on American children by comparing siblings, a distinction meant to distinguish the effects of breastfeeding from other effects such as family income, education levels, and social dynamics. Supposedly the study is interesting and worth reading. But does it deliver the best breast milk science?
Outlets like Slate quick to trumpet the study as a confirmation that the benefits of breastfeeding are overstated. “Hopefully this study will give women who don’t want to breastfeed for whatever reason more ammunition to tell the breast-is-best purists to piss off,” wrote Slate contributor Jessica Grose.
And then UC Santa Barbara anthropologist Melanie Martin wrote a rebuttal to that piece. Martin challenged the study’s method with an analogy, “I find 1000 people who, for at least 2 weeks in 2010, drank organic fresh fruit superfood smoothies everyday for breakfast. Then I find 1000 people who did not. I weigh them today, in 2014, and I find that the two groups differed in obesity rates, but between siblings that did and did not drink smoothies, there was no difference in obesity rates. If I concluded from this result that eating healthy isn't protective against obesity, would I sound like an ass? Yes I would.”
Thus, “Colen and Ramey effectively showed that the totality of one’s childhood experiences-and not simply whether one was breastfed or not-is what really explains variation in multifactorial health and behavioral outcomes. Good for them. Also, duh.”
Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, also criticized the research: “Strong evidence exists for a relationship between breastfeeding and SIDS, necrotizing enterocolitis, hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections, ear infections, diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and acute leukemia...But this study looked at only two physical diseases, asthma and obesity. Thus, for the authors to conclude that breastfeeding has ‘no effect on child well-being’ is a gross overstatement and is overtly false.”
Apparently there are two very different perspectives on the new breastfeeding study. The debate may go on, but the takeaway here should not be “don’t bother breastfeeding” as Grose implied, but rather we mothers don’t need to stress out about whether we have to supplement with formula or how long we are going to breastfed. Still, the benefits of breastfeeding cannot be replaced, and for the society it’s worth supporting breastfeeding mothers.
The bottom line is, breastfeeding or formula-feeding is a personal choice but also a health decision. We as adults should make an informed choice. Is the study really the best breast milk science? It seems not to me. Breastfeeding is also a human right. Women who choose to practice the right should be protected. Now, if you ask me, I would still choose not to stay with an employer that’s not friendly to nursing mothers.
TO-WEN TSENG 曾多聞