Breastfeeding has been touted for years as being the healthier option for mothers. If women are able to produce enough milk to breastfeed and are able to do so without deleterious effects to career and public decency, the logic goes, then natural is the best choice. Formula fed babies have been shown in study after study to have reduced immune responses and less progress toward scholastic milestones. But a new study has come out that might upset all previous scholarship on the subject. The question of whether to breastfeed or bottlefeed may, indeed, be moot.
The journal Social Science and Medicine has just published a study that may relieve mothers who have felt concern over being unable to nurse their babies, either due to job pressures or physical limitations such as not producing enough milk to sustain an infant. The study paid special attention to factors that had previously been shown to be affected by breastfeeding or its lack in children. Like in past studies, these researchers made sure to cover areas of physical health such as BMI, asthma and obesity, and behavioral and mental factors such as hyperactivity and IQ results.
One thing this study did do that previous studies had not, however, was to focus not just on toddlers and infants but on children all the way up to age 14. This made the study very comprehensive. The research, recorded at Ohio State University, covered three separate, large groups of children. One group contained 8,237 children, another 7,319 siblings. This study was unique in that it focused on sibling comparisons. Thus the third group, comprised of 1,773 pairs of siblings in which one sibling was breast-fed and one was not, yielded important results.
The study did conclude that children who came from separate families and were breastfed did slightly better than bottlefed babies from separate families in IQ-related areas such as reading and math, vocabulary and number recognition, and in hyperactivity levels and BMI. More importantly, however, no significant difference was found between siblings from the same home among whom one was breastfed and one was not. In fact, in one factor, the prevalence of asthma, breastfeeding children did less well in comparison to their bottle-feeding companions. The choice to breastfeed, then, seems less weighty than previously thought.
This study, in researching the results for children raised in the same home, points out that many other factors might be involved in the statistics previously found for breastfed vs. bottlefed children. Women who have access to higher socio-economic mobility are more likely to be able to nurse their infants, while women from lower socio-economic strata find it more difficult to quit work for the length of time recommended for breastfeeding.
Indeed, most daily wage jobs in the U.S. do not offer maternity leave of any significant length, and women who work such jobs tend to be unable to afford the time off of work without leave to contribute to nursing. Breast-pumping and supplemental formula use, then, may not be the factor that puts some children behind.
The study points out that other factors, including a stressful financial environment and less parental presence might have as much to do with previous results as whether or not a child was fed formula. To breastfeed or to bottle-feed has been a great debate as well as a source of stress and social stigma for many women. This new study offers another perspective.
By Kat Turner