Two different perspectives on a new study of breastfeeding outcomes

For the first time, some researchers studied the long-term impacts of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding in American children by comparing breastfed vs. formula fed siblings — a distinction meant to help distinguish the effects of breastfeeding from the effects of, say, family education levels, social dynamics, and income. It's a really interesting study, though not without its own flaws, so it's worth reading both this Slate piece by Jessica Gross and a rebuttal of that piece posted on the Mammals Suck blog by anthropologist Melanie Martin.

I think Martin's rebuttal makes some good points — particularly pointing out that it would be more interesting, and important, for research to focus on really understanding what breastmilk is made of and what the different components do. That research could not only give us a better starting point for knowing what differences we should and shouldn't expect to see between breastfed and formula fed kids, it would also put us in a better position to create better formula.

That said, I did think one of the arguments made in the Mammals Suck piece was kind of off.

Martin argues that the new study doesn't actually have anything new to tell us.

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.

The problem here is that I don't think that is actually a "Duh". Not for laypeople. Anecdotally, in my experience as a new mother, the opposite has been heavily implied to me by a lot of well-meaning friends and family. In a few cases, the opposite was outright stated — that breastfeeding alone, irrespective of the totality of childhood experiences, could control multifactorial health and behavior outcomes. Basically, I think this is a case where the new research might not tell science anything science didn't already know, but it does add a layer of nuance to what laypeople think and how we talk about breastfeeding. And that's an important distinction.

The takeaway here should not be, "Whelp, don't bother breastfeeding!". (Something that the Slate piece kind of implies.) Instead, we should probably come away from this with the understanding that, for those of us living relatively wealthy lives in developed countries, whether or not we are breastfed is just one of many, many factors that affects our long-term health, behavior, and intelligence and there is at least some reason to suspect that breastfeeding may not be the most important of those factors.

The fact that breastfeeding is likely to be a factor on some level (in addition to other issues like potential impacts on the long-term health of the mother and the high cost of buying formula) tells us that breastfeeding has benefits, and it's worth making it easier for women to breastfeed in our society. (Case in point: Our entire travel infrastructure, which is set up to largely ignore the fact that breastfeeding women travel and may need to either feed their babies or use a breast pump while doing so.)

The fact that breastfeeding isn't some kind of magical panacea, without which a child is doomed to lowered IQ, poor health, and obesity tells us that maybe we mothers don't need to stress out so much about whether we have to supplement with formula, or how long we are able to breastfeed, or what's going to happen to our kid if we happen to have trouble breastfeeding to begin with. (The lack of nuance about the science of breastfeeding in public discourse can really do a number on a new mother's psyche.)

To me, this study points to both those messages, and both those messages are important in American society.

Image: Some rights reserved by myllissa.

Notable Replies

  1. Definitely the breast milk.

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