A new study states that the benefits of breast-feeding may be exaggerated. The study compared siblings who were fed differently during infancy and also included analysis of outcomes across families of different races and socioeconomic circumstances.
Cynthia Colen is the lead author of the study and assistant professor at Ohio State University. “Previous studies are biased as they were not able to take other factors into account, including race and socioeconomic circumstances. Those things have a major impact on breast-feeding and the child’s health,” she says. The new study is unique, as researchers looked at children aged 4 to 14 years old, while many previous studies only looked at children in the first year of their life. Colen included 80,000 children in her study and tested the siblings against 11 outcomes, including obesity, asthma, body mass index (BMI), hyperactivity and intelligence. The results of her study are interesting, as the benefits of breast-feeding are not significantly shown and may even be exaggerated.
When children from different families were compared, the breast-fed children had a better result on the 11 measures; however, according to Colen, mothers who breast-feed their child tend to be wealthier and better educated than those who do not. When children from the same family were compared, researchers found that there was no significant difference in most of the measures. Asthma was the only outlier, as breast-fed children were at higher risk of asthma than those who drank formula during infancy.
Mothers with better education, higher incomes and a more flexible daily schedule are more likely to breast-feed their child and previous studies have said that breast-feeding benefits the child’s health, but according to Colen’s new study, there may be other factors that are more important to the health of a child. Colen’s study suggests these other factors may include school quality, child care, housing, employment of parents and the mother’s maternity leave.
Other researchers have also shown their skepticism of breast-feeding benefits. Some of them say that breast-feeding does not benefit weight maintenance in any way, but pediatric groups continue to recommend mothers to breast-feed their child, as other studies say it benefits the child’s development and is health protective for mothers as well. Colen says, “With this study we are not trying to say breast-feeding does not benefit children at all, but we need to look at all factors if we want to improve child health in the U.S. Breast-feeding is beneficial in the short-term, but to improve child health, I think we should focus on things for the long-term, like subsidizing day care, better arrangements for maternity leave, adequate housing for low-income families and employment opportunities for mothers with lower education. We just need to take a much better look at what happens after a child’s first year of life.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it will stick to its mission to increase breast-feeding rates throughout the U.S. and that they will continue to support and promote optimal breast-feeding practices and its benefits to support and improve public health, even though Colen’s study says benefits may be exaggerated.
By Diana Herst