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How beneficial is breastfeeding?


A new study makes some audacious claims about the supposed value of breastfeeding.

Apparently, such claims are both very common and very controversial.

I’m not familiar with the relevant epidemiological literature, but I suspect that debates in this area are influenced heavily by, among other things, the economic interests of formula makers, the cultural politics of motherhood, and plenty of other non-scientific factors.

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  • Daragh McDowell

    Two thoughts on this – firstly that breastfeeding unquestionably has positive health benefits, even if sometimes overstated (though I will take the arguments of the epidemiologists over the statisticians any day.) However, there is a significant downside to the relentless message that there is something intrinsically ‘wrong’ with formula feeding. I’ve known a number of women who simply weren’t able to produce enough milk for their baby’s needs, but due to the ‘formula is wrong’ norm resisted supplementing for several weeks. The predictable result is that their babies were very hungry, and very unhappy, increasing the Mother’s stress, as well as the feeling that there was something wrong with them as mothers – not a good situation to be in. That’s aside from simple fact that formula feeding also allows Mom to hand baby over to Grandmom or some other trusted friend for a night or two, and get some well deserved (and needed) R&R.

    I know ‘everything in moderation’ is usually the wanker’s cop-out, but I think its really true in this case, and the public would be better served with a message of ‘Breast feeding is preferable, but formula is still OK.’

    • ribber

      Well said, Daragh, very well said. My wife had twins. One latched well, one did not and created a lot of pain and toil for minimally productive nourishment. Yes, she saw 50 bajillion “lactation consultants” who were frankly pissing me off by the end of it because each gave roughly the same advice that wasn’t working and then reset the clock for my wife giving it up. She went to pumping and doing all administration by bottle, and supplemented 1/2 of their needs with formula. After 6 weeks of diminishing returns, she gave up pumping. Sure, “breast is best,” but when it just is not viable the mother should not be treated to a massive guilt for going to formula.

    • Anonymous

      Adding more data to Daragh’s excellent point — I know several women (including my wife) who had the same problem. Despite following all the advice, taking medications, etc, the supply never came in, even though the baby attached just fine. So, when the study calculates 900 lives saved in the basis of 90% “compliance”, are we counting all the babies who would die of starvation if bottle-feeding was removed as an option, or do those cases all miraculously get folded into the 10% “non-compliant” rate, as if they counted as data missing at random. Inquiring statisticians (including my wife) would like to know…

  • Everett

    You know the best thing about breastfeeding? It’s F-R-E-E. Sure, there can be supply issues, mother’s privacy issues, et cetera, but when it comes down to it, why spend $40 a canister on formula mix if you don’t have to?

    • Paul Campos

      As one researcher argues in a linked article, breastfeeding is only “free” if you ignore the cost of labor. If breastfeeding is more time-consuming than formula feeding, then formula can quickly become the more efficient choice from a cost perspective, at least for higher SES women in developed nations.

      • ignobility

        When you consider having to sterilize bottles and nipples, fill the bottles, and heat the formula before serving, the amount of saved labor is considerably lessened. You still have to feed and burp the baby, regardless of how it’s fed. It’s also quite nice, in the middle of the night, not to have to go down to the kitchen and heat a bottle.

        • Emily

          I also don’t think breastfeeding is free. I lose a lot of work time pumping, so there’s that, but also I eat more myself. So it’s not free. That said, I think it is cheaper. It’s also much better for women who don’t have access to a reliably safe water supply. When you breastfeed, you are filtering all food for your baby. When you make formula, you better have safe water around to do it.

    • davenoon

      It may be free in a narrow sense, but the cost to mothers in terms of time and energy isn’t negligible.

  • McBiggins

    That there are developmental advantages to breastfeeding is entirely uncontroversial — it’s been shown time and again in the research. If anything breastfeeding is overemphasized in the US, though, particularly in upper middle class circles. There are quickly diminishing returns in terms of the demonstrable benefits, and yet there’s enormous pressure on women to breastfeed and pump well beyond the point that it makes any practical sense for them.

  • Ed

    Absolutely. And as far as hospitals are concerned, when a friend’s wife was delivered of twins recently she was the recipient of a blizzard of pro-breastfeeding propaganda from hospital aides and finally her husband felt impelled to tell them to put a sock in it (the missus quite naturally is reluctant to breastfeed two hungry infants and is under enough stress as it is). Many women find breastfeeding difficult and painful and laying guilt trips on them does not help.

  • I always tell expecting Moms and Dads to TRY it for six weeks, even if they have to supplement. After that, your likes, dislikes and child will tell you what happens. One of mine is lactose intolerant. Breastfeeding didn’t work so well.

  • DocAmazing

    Hopefully, studies like this will reach the audience they really need to reach: legislators and insurers, who can then free up some funds for lactation consultants and lean on employers to allow pumping breaks for new moms.

    Most moms have already heard the message.

  • Laura

    First of all there is concrete evidence that breastfeeding is more beneficial than formual – see World Health Organisation research and policies.
    Second of all the above attitude is why women struggle to breastfeed. There needs to be more positive support and understanding of breastfeeding for women to successfully breastfeed.
    Food for thought – what is formual – its a product of cows milk, unless you have given birth of a cow why would’nt you feed your human baby human milk.
    Research and read the relevant information before opening a debate

    • In reference, the “try it” advice is a bit of a psychological trick. Every Mom I’ve told this to ended up breastfeeding for over 6 months. By the time my 3rd arrived I knew enough about Lactose issues to breastfeed her (6 month old on Easter and also Lactose Intolerant) and avoid milk products myself. I also was informed by a manager at my local grocery store to stop feeding my daughter or she would have me arrested for indecent exposure. No amount of calm persuasion could convince her I was also a Lawyer and violating no law. Better support, funding, information and social acceptance all will help, but I think we need a total cultural shift, not just laws and money.

  • DrDick

    There are definite advantages to breastfeeding, though I do think that they are often overhyped by zealots. Mother’s milk has the exact blend of nutrients needed by human children. Mothers can also transfer immunity or resistance to disease during the first few days or weeks of breastfeeding. All of this is well documented in numerous studies. The downsides are that not all women are able to breastfeed and those who can may contract infections which prevent them from breastfeeding (this happened to my ex-wife). The cost in time for women, as Dave notes above, are also not negligible. there is also the problem that there are social constraints on women’s ability to breastfeed if they work or otherwise have to spend extended time in public places.

  • Ed

    “Most moms have already heard the message.”

    You can say that again. The zealots can be very aggressive.

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