BabiesFoodNaturePseudoscience

Sorry Breastmilk, You’re Just Not That Amazing

Having just breathed a blissful sigh of relief now that World Breastfeeding Week and National Breastfeeding Month have finally concluded, I was dismayed to come across yet another ode entitled The More I Learn About Breastmilk, the more Amazed I am.

Obviously this piece was written by a new mother, as most people are not filled with endless wonder about breastmilk. I’m about as amazed by it as I am by pumpkin spice.

And yet, prepare to be amazed! The piece begins with how lactating women literally dissolve parts of themselves into breastmilk. Quibbles about literally aside, this might amaze you if you are just now learning what it means to be a mammal.   

If you aren’t a new parent and you still find lactation super interesting (let me know so we can totally not grab a beer sometime), you should at least know that much of what Angela Garbes finds amazing isn’t actually true.

via flickr user marksontok

via flickr user marksontok

Breast-feeding leads to better overall health outcomes for children.

No, it does not. Breastfeeding may be associated with better outcomes, but it isn’t responsible for them. Garbes suggests that a NICU preemie or an infant in rural Africa will benefit more from breastmilk than a full term baby in Seattle, but she doesn’t explain why. Breastmilk isn’t magic. It can prevent some conditions associated with prematurity but it doesn’t cure them, and breastfeeding is important in developing countries primarily because it doesn’t require access to clean water. 

We’re also told that breast-feeding leads to babies with higher IQs and lower rates of childhood obesity than their formula-fed counterparts.

We may be told that by people who either don’t know any better or who have a professional interest in the “breast is best” adage, but it’s just not true. Breastmilk won’t make your kid smarter or skinnier.

Breastmilk contains all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in the first six months of life.

Yes, as does formula.

Breast-fed babies don’t even need to drink water.

Neither do formula fed babies, other than the water you mix with powdered formula.

Breastmilk provides immunological benefits.

Yes, but the benefits are limited and brief.

Breastfed babies get fewer colds.

No, they don’t.

We know that breast-feeding can help children avoid diseases that manifest later in life, like type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

No, we don’t know that either.

via flickr user Abby Batchelder

via flickr user Abby Batchelder

Garbes writes very sweetly about nursing her sick toddler to provide her with “medicine” and “defense against what she’s fighting.” It’s a lovely sentiment but it’s entirely inaccurate.

She wants breastmilk to spark a national conversation about paid maternity leave and societal and institutional support structures for new mothers but breastmilk shouldn’t be a prerequisite. All new parents — regardless of ability to breastfeed or gender (for that matter) — would be well-served by more robust family leave policies and institutional support. The feeding method shouldn’t matter because, for the most part, it doesn’t matter.

Garbes strikes me as a new mom in the thick of her child’s first significant transitional phase. As her daughter begins to wean, it’s natural to reflect on the time, energy and devotion that breastfeeding has required. She wants it to have mattered and, of course, it did. Just not with IQ points or disease prevention. Those long months of infant feeding are intensely sweet, intimate and irreplaceable, whether they come with breastmilk or formula.

Featured image by flickr user Bill Mulder. 

Edited to indicate the sources linked above that aren’t clearly visible to some readers:

Study of Necrotizing Enterocolitis Risk

 World Health Organization: No Long Term Benefits to Breastfeeding, SkepticalOB.com

Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding, FiveThirtyEight.com

Tales From the Nursery: the health benefits of breast-feeding may not be what you think, Slate.com

and another one:

Has Breastfeeding Mania Gone Too Far? Russell Sanders, The Daily Beast

 

 

 

 

 

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Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

12 Comments

  1. September 6, 2015 at 10:16 am —

    I heard that breast milk could raise your IQ, so I just drank my own. Now I’m totally smarter. #lifehack

  2. September 9, 2015 at 5:36 am —

    I’m sorry that your own issues meant you couldn’t breastfeed but that’s not reason to be so bitter and potentially put new mothers off breastfeeding their child, after all none of the points you’ve made have been backed up with science or external reliable sources. This is merely a rant based on your own demons,not an article.
    Breast milk, do not threat…you are amazing ?

  3. September 9, 2015 at 9:42 am —

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20368314

    “RESULTS: If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).”

    Please ignore the use of the word “comply” that type of medical language drives me nuts – but it is par for the course across all research.

    I totally agree that family leave (or jury duty protections or whatever) should not be linked to feeding method; but from a public health perspective this is not a value neutral “choice” (choice in quotes to acknowledge the systemic, institutional and functional barriers that many women experience)

    • September 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm —

      I can’t read the full text but the claim (that more breastfeeding would mean cost savings and mortality reduction) is predicated on the assumption that breastmilk actually prevents all of the following conditions “necrotizing enterocolitis, otitis media, gastroenteritis, hospitalization for lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, sudden infant death syndrome, childhood asthma, childhood leukemia, type 1 diabetes mellitus, and childhood obesity.” The abstract states – “we conducted a cost analysis for all pediatric diseases for which the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported risk ratios that favored breastfeeding: [list above].” Well, with the exceptions of necrotizing enterocolitis and atopic dermatitis (and possibly otitis media, a term I don’t recognize), there is no evidence to support that assumption.

  4. September 15, 2015 at 11:18 am —

    Your sources are artIcles, not scientific studies.

    Otitis media is an ear infection. I’m surprised that you didn’t take a second to look that up.

    There are tons of sources for the most reliable information we have at this time on reduction of illness associated with breastfeeding.

    ****I always encourage people to educate themselves about the topic and decide for themselves. ****

    There are many sources of information, but here are some ideas:

    One easy place to start is the AAP.
    They list pages of citations in their policy on breastfeeding. On their entry page ( http://www2.aap.org/breastfeeding/policyonbreastfeedinganduseofhumanmilk.html ),
    they write:

    “…unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions in the infant such as:

    bacteremia
    diarrhea
    respiratory tract infection
    necrotizing enterocolitis
    otitis media
    urinary tract infection
    late-onset sepsis in preterm infants
    type 1 and type 2 diabetes
    lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkins disease
    childhood overweight and obesity

    There are also maternal health benefits to breastfeeding such as:

    decreased postpartum bleeding and more rapid uterine involution
    decreased menstrual blood loss and increased child spacing (lactational amenorrhea)
    earlier return to prepregnancy weight
    decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers

    Breastfeeding is also a great benefit to the environment and society. Breastfeeding families are sick less often and the parents miss less work. It does not require the use of energy for manufacturing or create waste or air pollution. There is no risk of contamination and it is always at the right temperature and ready to feed.”

    Other great sources of information include:

    Breastfeeding & Human Lactation
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1284053008/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1442329280&sr=1-1&pi=SY200_QL40&keywords=Jan+Riordan&dpPl=1&dpID=51tarGuTAnL&ref=plSrch

    Breastfeeding: a guide for the medical profession
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0323357768/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1442329390&sr=1-1&pi=SY200_QL40&keywords=Ruth+A.+Lawrence+MD&dpPl=1&dpID=41zzaHxV5hL&ref=plSrch

    Hale & Hartmann’s Textbook of Human Lactation
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0977226891/ref=mp_s_a_1_14?qid=1442329677&sr=1-14&pi=AC_SX110_SY165_QL70&keywords=Thomas+Hale

    Best wishes to all.

  5. September 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm —

    Since when does attaching other opinion articles to your article count as sources? The one actual research article you attached actually goes against what you cited it for: “The rate and substance of infant feeding have been a major focus of NEC research. Ninety percent of infants who develop NEC have been fed, and more infants fed formula develop NEC than who are fed breast milk.2,39–41 ” The article is debating whether they should delay infant feeding at all in preemies to reduce NEC.

    Here is an actual article with actual research citations: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/814970_2

    Breast milk can actually protect against HIV transmission and has numerous antibodies and immune effects that do not exist in formula. Mothers produce antibodies specific to the illnesses present around them and share them in their milk. Just saying that you think something isn’t true doesn’t make it so. The recent study claiming that nothing is increased between breast milk and formula looked at factors that have never been shown to have had an impact from breastfeeding like asthma. The overwhelming amount of studies for this evidence tends to mean a few poorly done studies that the media and opinion articles latched to for controversy doesn’t actually mean much in reality. That’s how science works, the more times you show something the more solid the evidence is. You need to learn how to read a study, take some biology courses, and maybe read up on secretory IgA:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X03003360

    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/5/941.short

    http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=441794416336077;res=IELHEA

    http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=441794416336077;res=IELHEA

    • September 15, 2015 at 1:31 pm —

      I linked to articles that include links to the studies themselves. It’s just one more click. I wrote that studies have shown breastmilk can indeed prevent some conditions associated with prematurity. That particular part was to provide specificity in contrast to Garbes’ vague assertion that breastmilk benefits can be relative.

      I never said that breastmilk provides no immunity but the idea that you can nurse your toddler to treat her fever (as Garbes suggests) is absurd.

      Again, I wrote this as a response to a specific piece. It’s not a complete and exhaustive review of the studies on breastmilk.

      • September 15, 2015 at 2:24 pm —

        You bring up almost all of the benefits of breast milk and simply state that they are not true and provide opinion articles as sources. You have the ability to do your own research if you want to actually support you argument. The statement on providing a defense for his illness refers to the antibodies that mothers that I provided sources for, those are actually defenses against illnesses. Such as when you get a vaccine you are triggering your body into producing antibodies to protect yourself, when your child is ill your body produces antibodies to the illness that is entering our system and then provides those antibodies in the milk to help them fight the illness. Your vilification of her choice of words is your own judgement, but anything that allows a child’s body to work against an illness better than if they did not have that substance can certainly be considered medicine. It’s simply not purchased from the pharmacy.

        The article nit picking the WHO article pulled out only what worked for their own objectives in that opinion. Did you read the WHO article yourself? all 75 pages of it? if you are going to call them your sources just a click away you need to understand what you are referencing. even the WHO article she is referencing is an overview of information from all different countries which tends to even out many things and the article itself mentions that issue. It’s also covering new topics of which breastfeeding has never claimed to enhance, blood pressure? When has any organization claimed that breastfeeding enhanced blood pressure? people did studies to see if it did and this is a compilation of these studies as i said in my previous comment. The previous meta analysis done covered different topics of study, each one providing an overall view of the different topics studied over the years. Notice how the WHO organization still supports breastfeeding as a scientific organization and supports the actual scientific claims on its main pages such as immunity, HIV, nutrition, etc. things that have been studied and shown to be effective.

        At the end of the IQ statement that the opinion article left out the WHO referenced new studies that are done in areas that can better avoid contamination by marked variability of socioeconomic position: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16303706

        Just because the impact in many avenues is not as significant as say turning your child into a superhero, as you people all seem to expect from breastfeeding benefits, does not mean it does not have an impact. In no way does formula have the same values as breast milk, it can sustain a child through the first 6 months of life yes, that does not mean it is the same. Breast is not best, it is a biological norm and thus it actually a perfect food for our babies because as mammals which you pointed out it is made just for them. Studies show differences between milk made for male and female babies, preemie and term babies, newborns and 2 year olds. It’s not magical, it wont make your child a genius it’s just the standard infant food for our race that gives them the food and growth they are supposed to have.

  6. September 20, 2015 at 10:00 am —

    This! One of my closest friends had to give up breastfeeding because her baby was on the edge of ‘failure to thrive’. Not everyone is capable of producing top-quality “superfood” breastmilk

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