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The Breastmilk Benefits “Myth”

Posted Jul 21 2009 11:51pm

I consider myself a lactivist. I mean, if there is truly a place in the world for a woman who thinks that babies should be fed what nature made for them, instead of the breastmilk from a distantly related species.

That means I know that breastmilk is simply better than formula.

But now an author and feminist says that we should question the breastmilk/formula debate. Is breastmilk really better, or are the differences so minute that it doesn’t matter what you put in baby’s mouth?

Joan Wolf was interviewed by the Times in the UK, where she said,

The evidence to date suggests it probably doesn’t make much difference if you breastfeed.

She says that many studies contradict one another, and others which show no discernible difference in health benefits. There are numerous claims about breastfeeding, she says, which can’t be proven:

Some of the more questionable claims include:

  • Formula-fed babies are more obese.
  • Breastfed babies have higher IQ.
  • Formula-fed babies have a higher incidence of asthma, eczema, and chest and ear infections.

And Wolf also claims that the breastfeeding lobby picks and chooses the studies to follow to push their beliefs on the public.

But what I never understand when I hear statements like this is, “The breastfeeding lobby? Lactivists like me who have no financial interest in breastfeeders?” I don’t get it.I’m just forcing women to BF because of my own selfish reasons?! I supplemented with formula for my older son, so I am well-versed in the issues and guilty feelings.

But you are already aware of these silly arguments against breastfeeding, because many of you probably followed the Hanna Rosin controversy, to which we all eventually said,

If breastfeeding is worth nothing, you are saying that time spent bonding with our infants, as close as we possibly can, is time wasted.

For one doctor, Michael Kramer, who advised the WHO and other health organizations, there are benefits, but they’re still not as fantastic as we’d all been led to believe. He thinks that breastfeeding is better for respiratory systems and for stomach bugs. He also thinks that research will continue to show that breastfeeding is good for IQ, at least by a few points.

But as far as the rest of the claims, he says:

The evidence is weak Allergies? ‘Weak.’ Asthma? ‘Weak.’

There is very little evidence that it reduces the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma, bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure . . .”

The breast cancer data is pretty solid, but on ovarian cancer and osteoporosis it is far iffier.

Now, there are some of these points that even I had never heard of.

And let’s not forget all of the problems with formula: the packaging (waste), the bisphenol-A, the melamine, and the rocket fuel. Please don’t tell me that formula is “just as good”: I don’t serve my baby melamine through my boobs.

Need more proof? How about the “ Formula is Voldemort ” study, which showed that researchers regularly changed wording in studies so as not to sound like formula was the culprit in health problems? Instead, authors would use breastfeeding in the title, touting its benefits (so as to sound more positive, I suppose). Dr. Julie Smith, who was part of the research, said,

We looked at the findings of nearly 80 authoritative studies, all of which highlighted that formula-fed babies tend to be at higher risk of poor health than children fed on breast milk.

But as far as the supposedly “small” benefits of breastmilk: as any parent of a special needs child knows, all of these are huge in their world. Give a few IQ points to a child with Down Syndrome or a little extra closeness to a child with ASD: these benefits matter!

But even the “normal” kids: breastfeeding does have benefits.  And if you want to stop discussing the health benefits, which we’re all well-versed on, let’s focus on this cost-benefit analysis, brought to us by Mothering.com. Some of the highlights of the article:

  • The AAP says each formula-fed infant costs the healthcare system between $331 and $475 more than a breastfed baby in its first year of life.
  • Data from 47 international studies found that for every year a woman breastfeeds, she reduces her risk of breast cancer by an average of 4.3 percent. The risk is reduced a further 7 percent by simply having a baby.
  • For each year of breastfeeding, a woman decreases her chances of getting type 2 diabetes by 15 percent, reported a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association
  • For the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), supporting a breastfeeding mother costs about 45 percent less than a formula-feeding mother. Every year, $578 million in federal funds buys formula for babies who could be breastfeeding.

However, there is one point which I will agree with Wolf on. So far, the science is imperfect and would be much more thorough if it wasn’t always women discussing this matter:

Let’s think about what would happen if we asked fathers to do this, if there were somehow evidence that babies who are looked after by their fathers at home for six months do better. We would see a lot more critiquing of the science, a lot more people saying the benefit is marginal, a greater reluctance to offer the advice.

To which I answer: Yes! But if we want to look at the feminist politics of breastfeeding, let’s make the workplace more family-friendly and support breastfeeding. Let’s not push it by the wayside because we find the natural processes of our bodies to be inconvenient.

Image: timtom.ch on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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