Earlier this week, I wrote about the alleged benefits of breastfeeding being vastly overstated.
My goal in writing that post was not to nurse some long-standing grudge against breastfeeding advocates. Nor was it an attempt to justify my own parenting choices: I breastfed both my children for well over a year.
(And yes, as some readers have inquired, I know just how wonderful breastfeeding can be. How breastfeeding your baby can be calming and joyful, even magical. But whether I found breastfeeding magical or a chore–or, in actuality, both–has nothing to do with whether it lowers the risk of asthma, or heart disease, or anything else.)
In response to my post, someone shared this comment on Facebook:
“Anyone who thinks this [my post] a solid piece of work needs to read my latest book, Milk Matters: infant feeding and immune disorder. No one has to prove that breastfeeding (the evolutionary and physiological norm that provides free stem cell transplants) makes a positive difference. Those who assume, claim or promote artificial feeding as safe or adequate need to prove that deviating from such basic physiological norms is safe, that there are no short or long term harms from doing so. …”
I am sharing this comment not because I find it particularly compelling, but because I think it nicely illustrates the problem with arguments made by many breastfeeding advocates: They start with the assumption that breast is best. And then, inevitably, they fail to scrutinize the evidence, no matter how flimsy, that supports that assumption.
And the evidence is flimsy indeed. Most of the alleged benefits of breastfeeding are found only in observational studies, which are widely acknowledged as biased. On average, breastfeeding mothers have a higher levels of education, higher incomes, and live in safer neighborhoods than formula-feeding mothers, granting their children an early leg up in life. Separating the effects of breastfeeding from these other advantages is next to impossible.
How do we know that these observational studies are biased? Primarily because we do not find the same benefits in better-designed studies–sibling comparison studies and the PROBIT randomized controlled trial. The only clear-cut benefit seen in these studies is a lower risk of severe vomiting and diarrhea during infancy. (For a detailed summary, see my earlier post).
To be fair, breastfeeding advocates are right, in a way. Breastmilk does contains numerous hormonal, antimicrobial, immunological, and nutritional factors not found in formula. This is why breastmilk helps protect against vomiting and diarrhea during infancy.
Before the advent of clean water, sanitation, and modern medicine, breastfeeding was frequently life-saving. In countries where access to these resources remains limited, it still is. There’s no bigger possible benefit than survival.
But these beneficial properties do not imply that breastmilk has any long-term benefits for the panoply of modern ailments: allergies, asthma, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. We cannot claim such long-term benefits without sound empirical evidence. And that is entirely lacking.
If the U.K’s National Health Service, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others were to say, “We recommend breastfeeding because it reduces the risk of severe diarrhea and vomiting during infancy, and because breastmilk contains unique immune, hormonal, and nutritional factors not found in formula, the long-term benefits of which are unknown,” I would have no problem with their claims.
But instead, they have chosen to present poor quality evidence as fact. Playing fast and loose with the evidence in this way undermines their credibility. Worse, it violates the trust that women have placed in them.