Last night, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a Slate article about a new study on the benefits of breastfeeding. Essentially, the study says that there is no long-term statistically significant difference between children who were breastfed and those that were formula fed, when external factors are controlled for. (Since Slate articles can be sometimes a bit inflammatory to generate traffic, here is the actual press release reporting the results.) As the press release notes, this study was different from most research done on breastfeeding, as it focused on older children (4- to 14-year-olds), rather than on infants and toddlers.
The other somewhat unique feature of the study is that it included “discordant sibling pairs,” which means that one sibling was breastfed and the other was formula fed. The use of within-family analysis removes a lot of factors that can be difficult to control for. From the press release:
Demographic differences across families that can bias studies in favor of breast-feeding include parental race, age, marital status, family income, insurance coverage, the mother’s education and employment, and whether a woman smokes or drinks during pregnancy.
“When we get more advantaged moms selecting into breast-feeding and we know those traits also will affect the health outcomes, it’s not clear what’s affecting an outcome like obesity – is it breast-feeding itself or those other background characteristics?” Colen said.
When the study analyzed outcomes across families, the researchers found that there were significant advantages to breastfeeding. However, if they looked within families, where one sibling was breastfed and the other was formula fed, there was no difference (except with asthma, which actually occurred more often in breastfed children).
I looked at the comments on Facebook on the Slate article and saw a lot of comments like “Breast is best!” and “This study was probably paid for by a formula company!” Part of that was probably due to the click-bait headline, which I’m sure was off-putting to some people who feel strongly about breastfeeding. However, the conclusions of the study – that there is no long-term difference in outcomes – rings true for me. When I look at a group of 5-year-olds or 10-year-olds, it is not obvious to me who was breastfed and who was formula fed, after all.
So if I don’t think that breastfeeding has significant long-term benefits for babies, why do I have a website about exclusive pumping and how to do it? Because when I was a first-time mom, it was important to me to breastfeed. Then, when nursing didn’t work out for me, I really wanted to exclusively pump (and I had no idea how to do it). For one thing, I felt like my body had failed me miserably with recurrent miscarriages and I wanted it to do what it was “supposed” to do for my baby. For another, all of my friends and co-workers were breastfeeding and I was worried they would think less of me and judge me if I didn’t. And of course, I assumed that there were health benefits for the baby, because that’s what everyone said.
So would I exclusively pump again, assuming this study is confirmed by further research? Probably. The study doesn’t address the benefits of breast milk to babies, such as less diarrhea, fewer ear infections, maternal antibodies, etc. And there were also benefits to me – such a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, plus not having to deal with my period for nine extra months. I also just liked still being connected to my son and being able to provide him with his food from my body.
(Is it wrong that I also loved being able to eat whatever I wanted when I was pumping 40-50oz a day?)
However, I also might have weaned earlier, without guilt, and have spent more time with my baby instead of being tied to a pump. To me, what this study says is that when nursing or exclusive pumping works for you, it’s great. And when it stops working for you, then you should stop, and your baby will be just fine.
Have you read the study? What did you think? Did it change your decision to exclusively pump?