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Are the Benefits of Breastfeeding Overstated?

You may have heard that a new study recently proved the benefits of breastfeeding (or risks of formula) are overstated. You probably heard this because journalists like to read scientific studies and twist them into a storyline that fits their agenda and then editors like to come along and put the cherry on top with a link baiting exaggerated headline.

I don't have time to dig into the scientific study that was mentioned and I don't care to give the article in question much regard. But a number of other people that I respect did take the time and I'm happy to share their work.

What does this mean? The study, the exaggerated media response, the follow-up articles by doctors and researchers of breastfeeding all mean that the same thing that I've been arguing for for years still holds true. We should support mothers in their feeding choices.

  • Breastfeeding is easy to choose, but often hard to do. We need to protect mothers who want to breastfeed by ensuring they are given a supportive environment that will help them succeed with breastfeeding and be protected from predatory formula marketing.
  • Formula feeding is harder to choose (because moms are faced with judgment), but relatively easy to do. We need to stop judging mothers who choose to formula feed and accept that they've made the best choice for their family at that time.

Listen to the mother. Support her in her feeding decision. Don't judge her. If we did all that, research like this could be read, reported on, and interpreted without flames being thrown around.

Furthermore, as Suzanne from the Fearless Formula Feeder pointed out in her post on the study, the author of the study itself (Cynthia G. Colen) isn't saying breastfeeding isn't beneficial. Rather she is saying there are other priorities that we should focus on if we care about the health of children:

I'm not saying breast-feeding is not beneficial, especially for boosting nutrition and immunity in newborns. But 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."

Of course those things are important too and some of them can even make it easier for moms to breastfeed. But they don't need to be mutually exclusive and we shouldn't need to prioritize one over the other. Where I live (Quebec), we have subsidized day care, one year of maternity/parental leave, significantly increased maternal workforce participation since the introduction of those policies, and a ban on advertising to children that has had a direct impact on lowering obesity rates. Oh, and we have lower breastfeeding initiation rates than much of the rest of the country. So no one can argue that we're putting breastfeeding ahead of other important policy priorities. Supporting breastfeeding is one of many things that we need to do as a family friendly society.

Are the benefits of breastfeeding overstated? Maybe sometimes, mostly not. What does that mean? It means that we need less pressure on mothers to breastfeed (and less judgment of mothers who don't) and we need to redirect that misplaced energy towards supporting mothers who do choose to breastfeed by ensuring they have every possible chance of success.

The problem? That's harder than it sounds. But we'll keep on trying.

Photo credit: Mothering Touch on flickr

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Reader Comments (12)

When I saw an article about this study, I couldn't help but click through. I just didn't trust the way the study was reported, but then I usually don't. I think what you've said here is far more important. If we respected each other's choices (and each other as people) more, we wouldn't need to cling to study results to justify our decisions. They could simply be one factor in the decision-making process.

March 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

Such a wonderful response to the probably overhyped attention that this study has received. As a mom who briefly (5-6 weeks) breastfed and then formula fed, I do love the less judgmental direction that the conversation about how we feed our babies is going. Why so many women (like me!) are responding so passionately to this study is because it's the first one that really examines sibling pairs (sort of the gold standard in child studies). As others have long argued, it's impossible to control for all the ways that breastfeeding moms could be different than other moms. So this study shows that siblings who were fed in different ways both do about the same. It's so confusing what we can say definitely about the benefits of breastfeeding, but I strongly believe that they should not be exaggerated. In my breastfeeding class (taught by a La Leche League instructor) she told us time and time again that our children would be much smarter than formula fed babies, that they would have fewer behavioral issues, etc. I -- a doctoral student in development at the time who was somewhat familiar with the research -- raised my hand and said that this is simply not true. I actually left the class because I got so frustrated by the misinformation being given to women. We should all use a little caution in what we say about the long-term benefits of feeding choices.

March 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock

Annie- this is an excellent response and I hope widely read. Carry on my friend. :-)

March 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStorkStories

I don't judge bottle feeding moms. I judge formula companies for not making a healthier and safer product for moms to feed their babies. ALL moms should be able to feed their babies foods safer from GMOs, hormones, antibiotics and more. Moms who can afford organic should not be the only moms who can avoid these chemicals. Formula companies should not give out formula in 3rd world countries to promote their products as better than breastfeeding to women who cannot afford it or have no access to clean water. Then these babies starve or die from diseases. Their milk dries up and they cannot afford the formula or mix it with dirty water.

I think supporting mothers is one but there is also a need for some large scale media campaign to promote breastfeeding. Many people still frown upon mothers breastfeeding in public. This definitely does not help new mothers.

March 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

I don't think we need campaigns to promote breastfeeding, but we do need campaigns to normalize breastfeeding. At the moment, mothers are told over and over again that they must breastfeed. There is no shortage of information promoting it. But as you rightly state, there is still a societal aversion to seeing a mother breastfeed. That is problematic, because it makes mothers feel like they need to hide in order to do what is right for their child.

March 10, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

As one of those who (admittedly) contributed to the hype by posting the article on FB, I really appreciate this critical response. One quibble with what you say here: formula feeding isn't always easy. As the mother of a preemie with feeding resistance issues (the result of severe reflux, and of being on feeding and breathing tubes while in hospital), it has been an ongoing struggle to get food into my baby by bottle. (Breastfeeding -- though we tried and tried, with the help of lactation consultants and nurses -- proved impossible.) But yes, the take-home message is we need to provide support and understanding for all parents doing the hard work of feeding babies. Thanks for this.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMaia

Definitely agree with your conclusion here: the most important thing on this matter is that every single mom should be able to choose breastfeeding or bottle feeding without being judged or pressurised...this is very far from being the case right now!

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJodie

Terrific post. I just shared it to some people who were concerned about the Globe and Mail's coverage of this, and it was good to be able to send a link to such a clear and sensible response.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

This is one of the cases where, as a parent, I followed my gut. I read a lot about bottle and breastfeeding, then made up my mind. In my case, I opted for breastfeeding for around 10 months. As you mention, the main problem is that mothers are judged for their choice.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHappinessSavouredHot

This came quite a shocker to me. All of us in the family have been breastfed when we were once babies and toddlers. I guess they are just trying to say that benefits of breastfeeding, at some point in time, has been exaggerated and the adverse effects of it have not been made know to the public. Regardless, breastfeeding has been proven to have good effect for both baby and the mother. Most of my friends breastfeeds their babies and they made it seem effortless to lose weight, most of them claim it's the effect of full breastfeeding. Their kids are also not likely to catch any sickness or viruses. The good weighs out the bad.

April 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGrace Powell

Breastfeeding is really important for mother as well as for child's health. If a mother breastfeeds her child for few months it will be healthy for her child's health at the same time she will not suffer for other breast issues. To know more about this read here .

January 2, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteralliejohn

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