Despite the numerous advantages to breastfeeding, there are a few cases where liquid gold is thought not to 100% live up to it’s pseudonym. Now, personally, I don’t think that’s anything to get worked up about. Formula has a lot of drawbacks, too – breastmilk, at least the kind that comes directly from the breast, is sterile; formula will always carry the potential for bacterial contamination. It’s just the nature of the beast. Pretty much everything in life has advantages and disadvantages – even my beloved Fearless Husband. He’s cute and talented and hilarious and the most amazing dad. But you know, he’s also maddeningly, perpetually late; exceedingly stubborn; and impossible to wake up – like, so impossible that I think it might be a medical issue. (Happy Valentine’s Day, honey…;) )
The clinical “disadvantages” to breastfeeding are pretty minor, and none outweigh the bennies, by any means. (Please note, this is very different than the personal disadvantages to breastfeeding, which have everything to do with your own individual situation and are completely real and valid. But right now I’m just talking about how breastfeeding fares in studies.) I’m talking about things like the scarcity of Vitamin D in breastmilk (the AAP now recommends that breastfed babies be given a D supplement to offset this risk) and the suspicion that babies prone to food allergies can become sensitized to substances coming through their mothers’ milk. Both of these are fixable problems, just requiring a bit of forethought and diet adjustment; no big deal.
Yet, it seems like the suggestion that breastfeeding (or breastmilk) may be even slightly imperfect in specific cases, is taken as slander. On the heels of any study that takes the sheen off breastmilk comes one which pumps it back up. A perfect example occurred this week, when a study came out stating that breastfed babies are “less angry” as adults. The irony (in addition to the fact that the study was pretty much worthless, as explained quite beautifully here) is that just a few months prior to this “breaking news”, we were told that breastfed babies are grumpier than their formula feeding counterparts. (Oh, and not too long before that, it was revealed that breastfeeding mothers are more aggressive, but that was apparently a good thing.)
I’m certainly getting aggressive and angry. But that’s because we’re wasting time on these ridiculous studies, not because of what I was or wasn’t fed during my first year of life.
Occasionally, though, a study or two will turn up a slightly more frightening “disadvantage” to breastfeeding, like in the case of asthma. Back in 2007, a group of American researchers suggested that for women with asthma, long-term breastfeeding was associated with a higher risk of asthma in their children. “Compared to children of asthmatic mothers breastfed for shorter periods, those breastfed for four months or longer had a 6% reduction in certain lung function testing at 16 years,” explains an article on WebMD. ” One theory is that breast milk transmits hormones that promote inflammation from mothers with asthma to their babies.” The researchers were appropriately quick to reassure parents; the lead author explained that “As a pediatrician and a mother of three who breastfed, I want to emphasize that breast is best…We know that breastfeeding is good for brain development and that breastfed babies have less ear infections. And there are many other benefits. But there may be an aspect to breastfeeding that isn’t totally positive.”
Aw, snap, lady!
But watch out – you stepped in it there. And apparently you got served, because just the other day, the headlines were screaming the good news: Breastfeeding Increases Lung Function! Breastfeeding Cuts Asthma Risk! Breastfeeding Tied to Stronger Lungs, Less Asthma!
These headlines referred to two studies, one large and Swiss, one small and from New Zealand- sounds like the set up for a dirty joke, doesn’t it? – found that breastfed babies, regardless of the mother’s asthma status, had stronger lungs in childhood, which theoretically will lead to less asthma.
The same researcher quoted above, Dr. Theresa Guilbert, was interviewed by Reuters about these new findings (of course she was… because that frames it as a competition, rather than just researchers trying to suss out what the best protocol for asthmatic mothers is in terms of infant feeding).
Dr. Theresa Guilbert, a pediatric pulmonologist from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, said that despite the new findings, it’s still “controversial” whether or not asthmatic moms pass on any risk to their babies by breastfeeding.
None of the studies that have been done can prove cause-and-effect one way or the other, she said, and conflicting results might be due to different samples of moms, from areas with different diets and environmental exposures.
“There’s a lot of things that breastfeeding is very, very good for,” Guilbert, who wasn’t involved in the new research, told Reuters Health. “I think the jury’s still out on the risk of breastfeeding from mothers that are asthmatic.”
Pretty rational, right? But then of course, she had to put on her proverbial protective gear to prepare for the coming sh-tstorm:
But, she concluded, “I don’t think any of that (evidence) is now strong enough to tell moms they should stop breastfeeding… because of all the other important benefits that breastfeeding conveys to the child.”
I have no problem with that statement; it’s the fact that she had to say it; it’s the fact that every article having to do with infant feeding must end on the same note: Breast is best. End of story. It’s the fact that she has to defend her findings, when the researchers who found a “positive” effect (ie. one that supports the consensus that exclusive, long-term breastfeeding is always recommended) are never put on the defensive. I fear that this overwhelming bias towards breastfeeding – even if it is founded in truth – is sullying research. Who wants to be the jerk who discovers that puppies poop on the floor, and rainbows can be created by oil spills? Both of these things are true, but no one wants to shout about it from the rooftops. I don’t see why scientists would feel any differently.
As for asthma, I think it is probably one of these benefits like the obesity thing, that has little to do with formula or breastmilk, in either direction. Just like obesity, it is most likely more a combo of genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors. Women should not be encouraged to breastfeed solely based on this body of evidence, nor should they be encouraged not to.