Breastmilk linked to autism?

Pigs have flown, Fearless Formula Feeders!

My husband (a reformed Nursing Nazi who is now a champion factivist) found this article from the University of California San Francisco, suggesting there may be a link between breastfeeding and autism.

Once I stopped slapping myself to ensure I was, indeed, awake, I had to decide whether to blog about this issue. Because let’s be honest – I don’t think any of us really believe breastmilk can be bad for babies (unless your kid is allergic to something you’re eating, or if you are a carrier of certain diseases like untreated HIV, but those are very specific cases). I’m afraid that by discussing this, we’ll immediately be dismissed as bitter formula zealots. It’s a slippery slope. Just because I want to defend formula feeding doesn’t mean I want to disregard the numerous benefits of breastfeeding. And being on the wrong side of public opinion, I think it’s important to stay as infallible and moderate as possible.

However.

I just read an infuriating book called The Baby Bond (please spare yourself and don’t even google it. The more attention this crazy author gets – a chiropractor who holds herself up as a physician- the more it will encourage her. Kind of like how my mom used to tell me to deal with bullies. Ignore them and they will go away) which claims several times that formula feeding causes autism. So if she’s gonna go there, I think I can go there too. All’s fair in love and war.

Anyway. This reasearcher at UCSF, Michael Merzenich (who, incidentally, is a PhD, M.D., Chair in Otolaryngology, member of UCSF’s W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Integrative Neuroscience, and “a scientist who pioneered the concept of brain plasticity” – a bit more qualified than a chiropractor to weigh in on such subject matter, in my opinion) found that “a specific class of PCB causes significant developmental abnormalities in rat pups whose mothers were exposed to the toxicant in their food during pregnancy and during the early weeks when the pups were nursing.”

What do rats have to do with us? The UCSF article explains the main question:

“In short, should some women with a genetic history that includes family developmental disorders such as language impairment or dyslexia — or with male partners who have a similar genetic background — breastfeed their babies?”

Merzenich is clear that he doesn’t want to make any extreme claims at this point (“for a scientist to inject a disruptive theory into a maternal bonding experience is, he admits, presumptuous.”), which is refreshing, considering the hysteria so many researchers have caused by overstating their study results. But he does say that his findings should at least initiate some further investigation:

“I’ve been trying to encourage the Autism Foundation and others to pursue correlative studies in humans. The Centers for Disease Control have been worried about these chemicals and their potential effects in the development of babies for a long time… our study adds to the worry and it really indicates that it’s in the great public interest to determine quickly whether or not these chemical poisons which are very widespread in the American environment, in the world environments, are adding to the risk of onset of these developmental disorders…we know that the PBDEs have been growing and increasing in concentration in American females and in their milk ,doubling every two to five years.”

It is interesting to me that the media, usually jumping on a sensational headline like a rat on cheese (some rodent humor in honor of the poor little buggers sacrificed for this study), has overlooked this story. How many news bytes have we been subjected to making us doubt our choice to formula feed? It might be nice for the other side to get a little taste of what that feels like. But apparently, this study isn’t worth mentioning.

Now, maybe if Merzenich was a chiropractor

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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7 thoughts on “Breastmilk linked to autism?

  1. This tells me that we need more protections against companies putting PCBs into the water supply. I have trouble believing that the same water nursing women drink has more PCBs than the water formula feeding moms use to mix their formula with. I am intrigued by your website. I am a breastfeeding mother but don't really take offense to others who formula feed. I personally find it abhorrent, but I recognize that your child is not my child. And while I may feel pretty sassy about the culture we live in that supports (have to disagree with you) formula feeding, I don't feel anger directly at you. I think its an important discussion to be having. PCBs are a problem for everyone, not just breastfeeding moms or nursing babies. I am new to your site and plan to keep reading.

  2. Idyllic Youth- Many formula feeders use bottled water, which *may* explain the water discrepancy.

    I find it difficult that you “find [formula] abhorrent” but “don't take offense to others who formula feed.”

  3. I do believe autism is somewhat environmental, with that said, does a baby that is breastfed get “double whammy” exposure – his/her own exposure plus the exposure his mother gets? I don't know I'm asking? Seems like more and more people breastfeed and there are more and more kids with “disorders”.

      • Hormones and antibiotics are not known neurological/endocrine disruptors.

        Toxins such as PCBs present in breast milk, on the other hand, are known disruptors.

        Just citing one of many examples: An infant is estimated to consume 242 pg of dioxin toxic equivalents (or TEQ) per kg of body weight per day in the first month of breastfeeding alone. Compare this with just 16 pg of TEQ/kg-day for a fully formula-fed infant.

        [Source: ‘Infant Exposure to Dioxin-like Compounds in Breast Milk’, Lorber and Phillips. Published under Vol 110 of Environmental Health Perspectives (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)]

  4. The content of formula is known and regulated. The content of city water supplies is known and regulated. PCB’s are monitored in both. There is no monitoring of individual breast milk content. It has been proven over and over again that human breast milk concentrates the toxins the mother is exposed to.

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