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New "breast isn't best" study has the potential to derail nursing

Monica Beyer is a mom of four and has been writing professionally since 2000, when her first book, Baby Talk, was published. Her main area of interest is attachment parenting and all that goes with it, including breastfeeding, co-sleepin...

less support for breastfeeding moms?

How moms choose to feed their infants is the subject matter of intense debate among not only moms, but experts as well. A new study claims that maybe breast isn't best. Can we take this conclusion at face value, or is there more to the story?
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Now, the "breast is best" campaign seems to be under fire after research on siblings who were fed differently as infants has revealed that there may be no large differences between breastfed kids and those who were formula fed. Should we take this study at face value? And for those who do, what does this mean for moms?

Wait, so breast isn't really best?

Studies have been done over and over again that demonstrate that children who are breastfed have greater benefits than do their formula-fed peers. Human breast milk has been touted as the perfect food for human infants, and it is — formula manufacturers strive to recreate it for a reason. However, many studies don’t account for socioeconomic factors, because mothers who are wealthier and have more education are more likely to breastfeed, which may account for the differences between the groups of children.

That’s where Cynthia G. Colen, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, comes in. She decided to analyze infant feeding data taken from not only children from different families, but children within the same family who were fed differently as infants. The results among children from different families echoed what studies have found previously — the breastfed children had better outcomes in many areas, such as BMI, math and reading skills, and parental attachment.

Vital information missing

However, when she studied "discordant" siblings (that is, the siblings in a family who weren’t all fed in a similar manner), the differences weren’t there. The conclusion Colen made was that the differences between formula feeding and nursing are not so great that society needs to focus on boosting the breastfeeding rates. “If breastfeeding doesn't have the impact that we think it will have on long-term childhood outcomes, then even though it is very important in the short-term we really need to focus on other things," she says in a statement. "We need to look at school quality, adequate housing and the type of employment parents have when their kids are growing up.”

However, the research may not be strong enough to support such a stance. The study examined the feeding habits of children using two bits of information — were they ever breastfed, and for how many weeks? Many feel that there are too many other variables at play to honestly make any absolute conclusions from this research. For example, were the breastfed babies nursed just a few times, or were they exclusively breastfed for six months? Were they supplemented with formula while they breastfed, or was it all mom, all the time? If these factors were not considered, then is the conclusion valid?

Will this study have a negative impact on breastfeeding?

Paala Secor, a breastfeeding and natural-living advocate, doesn’t think the results matter much. “Why should the whole world suddenly be thinking about dismissing the importance of breastfeeding because of this one study by an assistant professor?” she shares. “The points brought up in [the study] were interesting, like other ways to help families out. But why can't those things be done without dismissing the importance of supporting breastfeeding families?”

Rachelle, owner of the popular Facebook page Unlatched, totally agrees. “This new study — and the media's sensationalistic reporting — is potentially damaging to parental confidence and a mother's support system,” she explains. “Despite numerous studies showing negative health outcomes from formula use, this new study will cause some parents to second guess their decision to breastfeed.”

Vindication for formula-feeding moms?

Moms who formula feed, either by choice or because their breastfeeding efforts were in vain, may feel vindicated as they hear of this news. While most breastfeeding mothers do not villainize formula-feeding moms, the “breast is best” campaign that is present in many communities serves to increase guilt in moms who don’t take that path. “Nothing wrong with breastfeeding if that's what you want to do but like I always say, I strongly feel that there isn't a big difference,” explains Charlene, mom of two. “I think the advantages are overblown to guilt people into doing it.”

And she’s not alone. Commenters on articles around the internet predict that the “Breastapo” will be up in arms, and some moms feel that finally, the “breast is best” campaign can be laid to rest. Moms who aren’t successful at breastfeeding often feel intense guilt that they’ve failed their children, and that is not the case — but still, they feel that if the benefits are overstated, then they might feel better about the choice they had to make.

We must continue to support moms who breastfeed

Even if the methodology of this study was well done, this doesn’t mean that the importance of breastfeeding should be dismissed or minimized. With the media attention being paid to this study, the challenges many breastfeeding moms have faced for the last several decades may be intensified. Moms are often harassed for nursing in public, for example, or struggle to get enough time off work after their baby is born so they can establish a good nursing routine. If breast really isn’t best, will these issues become worse? After all, you can now use formula with no guilt attached. Right?

Actually, wrong. A baby will always have the right to be fed his mother’s breast milk, no matter if she is at work looking for a pumping break, at the store, on an airplane or at home. Helping moms nurse their babies should always be a priority because it is a fundamental right, and keeping essential support from them because it “isn’t as beneficial as once thought” is a terrible idea.

Above all, it’s not a good practice to take the results of one study and run with them, particularly when the results seem to contradict all other research on the same subject. Don’t dismiss these results, but keep in mind that the sample size was small (the study data included three distinct groups — 8,237 children, 7,319 siblings and 1,773 "discordant" sibling pairs) and that research needs to continue. And it remains vitally important to not only support breastfeeding mothers, but their formula-feeding counterparts as well. We’re all moms doing our best for our children and using this study to stoke the fire of the “mommy wars” should be discouraged.

More on breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and jury duty: Mom faces charges
Should you join a breastfeeding support group?
Is it OK to let your baby nurse to sleep?

Photo credit: ULTRA.F/Photodisc/Getty Images
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