Does breastfeeding actually have scientific benefit over using formula? Studies on breastfeeding have looked at children from different families. Many previous studies incurred selection bias because they could not control for factors such as income, parental employment, and race across two different families. Jessica Grose, a writer on women’s issues, talks about the issues with breastfeeding studies:
When children from different families were compared, the kids who were breastfed [had better health outcomes] than kids who were not breastfed. But, mothers who breastfeed their kids are disproportionately advantaged — they tend to be wealthier and better educated.
Cynthia Colen, Ohio State University assistant professor, conducted a first-of-its kind study showing that breastfeeding benefits may have been exaggerated over the years. Colen has done breastfeeding research in the past, and wanted to explore the actual benefits of breastfeeding and what happens past that first year of life. Colen’s study is the first to follow siblings in the same family — one was breastfed and the other who was bottle fed. Researchers measured those siblings for 11 outcomes, such as intelligence, BMI, and asthma. Results from the study show there was no difference among the siblings who were bottle-fed versus breastfed. Grose points out:
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.
So, what are the public health implications?
It is possible that health outcomes previously said to have been caused by feeding practices may have actually been a result of environmental, biological, and socio economical differences among different families. What Colen takes from her findings is that we need to understand breastfeeding may be difficult for certain groups of women, and shaming these women may be akin to bullying. Rather than pushing women to breastfeed their babies, we should encourage new mothers to do what is best for the family unit as a whole.
What do you think?
- Do you think this study’s significance will have an effect on the way public health professionals educate new mothers?
- How will society react to changing infancy feeding practices?