Breastfeeding and Leukemia: Old news is no news

By the time you read this, many of you are probably already in panic mode.


The news outlets are probably heralding the news of a NEW study, PROVING that breastfeeding reduces a child’s risk of leukemia, or the unfortunate corollary, that formula feeding raises a child’s risk of developing this cancer.


Take a deep breath. This “study” is actually a meta-study. Meta-studies are often considered the highest level of research, since they are synthesizing data and ruling out certain study findings based on quality criteria, thus weeding out the “bad” studies and only showing us the ones with results worth caring about. They are very useful, because one study alone doesn’t tell us much; many high-quality studies, when looked at together, can give us a much better feel for what the reality of the research actually is.


But the same thing that makes meta-studies so useful can also be their fatal flaw. If the body of research they are considering “quality” is not actually that high-quality at all, then the results they get are far less impressive. As Joan Wolf has suggested, if you do the use the same poorly-designed study protocol one hundred times, you may very well get the same result. But that result comes from poor design.


That’s basically what’s going on in this study, Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence: A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review. Despite numerous references to controlling for “quality” in the studies they chose, there is no discussion of which confounding factors were controlled for in any of these studies:


Selection criteria for the present meta-analysis included articles researching the association between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia… Studies had to be case control for the purpose of the statistical analysis; have breastfeeding as a measured exposure and leukemia as a measured outcome; include data on breastfeeding duration in months, including but not limited to, 6 months or more (where relevant data were unavailable in the publication, the authors of the studies were contacted); and been published in peer-reviewed journals with full text available in English. Two investigators… independently searched the literature, reviewed and assessed the articles, and decided on inclusion. We identified 25 case control studies examining the relationship between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia risk, 7 of them were not included in any previous meta-analysis.

I looked up most of the studies they referenced, and they were pretty similar to the general quality of infant feeding studies (in other words, lacking a lot of necessary and relevant controls).  And sometimes, it wasn’t even the study authors’ faults – because the design of the study didn’t really allow for much control, or because they just didn’t focus that closely on breastfeeding. For example, one study they referenced as “high quality” had “never breastfed” as one of many factors they examined for correlation to leukemia. And yes, “never breastfed” had a moderately higher rate of leukemia- but so did “having eczema”.


On a positive note, since the study did not/could not control for exclusive breastfeeding, but rather just “breastfeeding to six months”, this might mean that the benefit could be conferred even for supplementing or combo-feeding moms, which is a type of breastfeeding more women are finding it possible to do. That also suggests, to me, that more research needs to be done into the mechanisms behind this benefit – for example, did they control for the type of formula used? Is it something in the formula, or simply something that the formula is lacking? Did they control for the reasons the babies stopped breastfeeding in the first place? Could introduction of solid foods have something to do with it (the six month aspect is intriguing – why not a great benefit at 4 months? 5 months? What is so important about that 6 month mark)?


It would be far more interesting and newsworthy to see a metastudy which really controlled for confounders – one that only used studies which did their due diligence in controlling for everything that can screw up infant feeding research, and discussed how they went about this.


And something else: remember the outrage when an interviewee on this blog hypothesized that there might be a association between insufficient feeding/brain injury in the neonatal period and autism? The consensus was that it was premature to even speak of a possible association – to even put the idea out there – which I fully understand (again, those were the physician’s views, not mine – I do not have a sufficient understanding of this particular body of research to even converse intelligently about it). Yet, some of the same people who have run this physician over the rails for merely suggesting her hypothesis, are the first to jump on the not-breastfeeding-causes-cancer bandwagon. And that’s just hypocritical, because you can’t be raging about scaring parents unnecessarily, and then in the same breath, scaring parents unnecessarily. Until we have a figured out exactly how breastfeeding until 6 months may prevent leukemia, there is simply no reason to believe it’s anything more than an association.


This science isn’t my biggest concern with this one, however (mostly because there was no science involved in this particular study – just an analysis of other people’s science). I’m far more interested in how the authors jump to the conclusion that breastfeeding is a “highly accessible, low-cost public health measure”, as quoted below:


The meta-analysis of all 18 studies indicated that compared with no or shorter breastfeeding, any breastfeeding for 6 months or longer was associated with a 19% lower risk for childhood leukemia (odds ratio, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.73-0.89). A separate meta-analysis of 15 studies indicated that ever breastfed compared with never breastfed was associated with an 11% lower risk for childhood leukemia (odds ratio, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.84-0.94), although the definition of never breastfed differed between studies. All meta-analyses of subgroups of the 18 studies showed similar associations. Based on current meta-analyses results, 14% to 19% of all childhood leukemia cases may be prevented by breastfeeding for 6 months or more.


Breastfeeding is a highly accessible, low-cost public health measure. This meta-analysis that included studies not featured in previous meta-analyses on the subject indicates that promoting breastfeeding for 6 months or more may help lower childhood leukemia incidence, in addition to its other health benefits for children and mothers.


“Highly accessible”  is not exactly an accurate representation. As I said to reporter Tara Haelle for, “Women have clearly gotten the message that “breast is best” – in fact, reduction of leukemia risk is one of the benefits public health posters like to emphasize, as it packs an emotional punch. This is not “new” news.” And if women weren’t finding it easy of possible to breastfeed for 6 months before, despite being freaked out that their kids might get cancer because of it, this reiteration of old news isn’t going to change that.


I actually think it would be amazing if they did discover some factor in breastmilk that could reduce cancer. It’s certainly plausible; we’ve already seen evidence of cancer-fighting properties in breastmilk, via lab studies. But our goal should be isolating that factor in a way that we might recreate it, or at least mitigate the risks to babies who cannot receive their mother’s milk, rather than using it as a motivating factor for breastfeeding promotion.


Why? Because there always have been, and always will be, children who cannot  or will not get breastmilk from their mother for 6 months. We have always needed and desired alternatives. If we can focus on finding out why there is an association between breastfeeding and leukemia risk (and again- take a breath, because there have also been studies that showed no significant correlation between the two, so it’s certainly not an open and shut case), maybe we can mitigate that risk for those who are not breastfeeding. Now that would be something worthy of some juicy headlines.

Note: For some excellent reporting on this study, please see and USA Today. 


Breastfeeding, IQ & Success: A few thoughts on the newest study to cause unnecessary worry for parents

“The longer babies breastfeed, the more they achieve in life,” proclaimed an article in The Guardian this morning. And around the world, millions of parents felt their stomachs lurch. Not because of what the study this article referenced actually said, but because they know, from experience, what this study means.

It means that we will continue to be beat over the head with “breast is best” proclamations that have fudge-all to do with our individual realities.

It means that we have to avoid social media for the next few days, unless we want to silently endure smug status updates, or be labeled “defensive formula feeders” if we dare offer an alternative point of view.

It means that those of us who are newly minted moms and dads, still anxiously watching our babies’ chests rise and fall and worrying about the color of their feces and every ounce they gain, will wonder if they should have tried harder/could have done something differently/might have chosen another path.

It means we will witness another media cycle where reporters regurgitate the same mommy-war bullshit, throwing in condescending caveats about how it’s “still a mother’s choice” whether or not she nurses her child.48fc15010a26b03f8586826f99699143

It means that society is still, as always, missing the damn point.

As for the study itself…. what it means is a lot less obvious. Here is the summary:


A prospective, population-based birth cohort study of neonates was launched in 1982 in Pelotas, Brazil. Information about breastfeeding was recorded in early childhood. At 30 years of age, we studied the IQ (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, 3rd version), educational attainment, and income of the participants. For the analyses, we used multiple linear regression with adjustment for ten confounding variables and the G-formula.


From June 4, 2012, to Feb 28, 2013, of the 5914 neonates enrolled, information about IQ and breastfeeding duration was available for 3493 participants. In the crude and adjusted analyses, the durations of total breastfeeding and predominant breastfeeding (breastfeeding as the main form of nutrition with some other foods) were positively associated with IQ, educational attainment, and income. We identified dose-response associations with breastfeeding duration for IQ and educational attainment. In the confounder-adjusted analysis, participants who were breastfed for 12 months or more had higher IQ scores (difference of 3·76 points, 95% CI 2·20–5·33), more years of education (0·91 years, 0·42–1·40), and higher monthly incomes (341·0 Brazilian reals, 93·8–588·3) than did those who were breastfed for less than 1 month. The results of our mediation analysis suggested that IQ was responsible for 72% of the effect on income.


Breastfeeding is associated with improved performance in intelligence tests 30 years later, and might have an important effect in real life, by increasing educational attainment and income in adulthood.


In laymen’s terms, these researchers interviewed a large group (3493) of 30-year-olds who were part of a larger study which began in 1983, when these folks were born. They chose these subjects based on the fact that they had a significant amount of data on their infant feeding patterns and follow-up data, and because they agreed to be interviewed for the project. They gave them IQ tests, and found that those who had been at least “primarily” breastfed for 12 months scored about 3 points higher, on average. (This doesn’t mean that every single formula-fed subject scored lower, or that every single breastfed subject scored higher – we are talking about aggregates here, not individuals.) The breastfed subjects also tended to have a little under a year more schooling and make a bit more money per year.

The researchers (and the media) claim that this is the first study to so clearly show a causal (and dose-related) relationship between nursing and intelligence/success in later life.

The critics claim that because they did not control for maternal (or paternal, for that matter) intelligence, the results are not so convincing. I agree that parental IQ is far more important than most of what they did control for, but they did at least control for a fair number of confounding factors, like socio-economic status, parental education level, income, birth weight, and so forth. They also had the advantage of using a cohort for which breastfeeding wasn’t associated with class; in other words, people across all socioeconomic groups breastfed and didn’t breastfeed, ruling out the concern that some of these positive effects would merely be associative (rich people breastfeed, rich people have better opportunities/resources, etc.).

There could very well be a correlation between those in this study who were breastfed and better outcomes in terms of IQ and success. I do have some questions, though:

1. What were the formulas like in Brazil, circa 1982?

I couldn’t find anything regarding the types of foods used as breastmilk substitutes in Brazil in 1980-1983. At best, they were the same or similar to American brands, which were somewhat different than how they are now. Not vastly so, but enough that it could potentially make a difference. (Then again, most of us were raised on these formulas and don’t seem too damaged because of it, so…. make of it what you will.) The study did not specify what these babies were eating in place of the breastmilk: properly prepared, commercial infant formula? Homemade formulas? Animal milk? This does matter. We need this info before we can begin to make assumptions about the risks of formula, because for all we know we may not even be talking about formula.

2. What, exactly, were the politics of breastfeeding in Brazil, circa 1982?

The authors talk about breastfeeding not being associated with SES in this cohort, but what did cause women to choose formula over breastfeeding, and vice versa?

According to a 2013 paper in Revista de Saude Publica, “Campaigns promoting breastfeeding began in Brazil in 1981 with the National BF Promotion Program. The 1980s was marked by significant advances in legal protection for BF, with the approval of the Brazilian Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes and the inclusion of the right to 120 days maternity leave in the Constitution.” I also found references to a Brazilian television campaign which promoted breastfeeding, initiated in the early 1980s which featured spots aimed at various demographics, using language, images and celebrities that would appeal to these specific groups. This implies that the author’s assertion that their study was able to negate possible confounding factors might be overstating it a bit. Socioeconomic status is not the only thing that could give a child a slight bump in advantages associated with success later in life. If there were fundamental differences in the mothers who chose to breastfeed back in 1983 Brazil, those differences would matter for the purposes of this study.

3. Why is a 3-point bump in IQ and a slightly higher income so important for public health, anyway?

The authors state that these findings are important on a public health and economic level. But let’s get Orwellian here, for just a second: if everyone is breastfeeding, then everyone is getting the 3-IQ point and 1-more-school-year advantage. Everyone is making more money per year.  The playing field is even. I nearly failed Econ, so correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you need “have-nots” to have “have’s”? If the whole country is smarter, then I guess you’d have an economic advantage… but the breastfeeding research world is quite international in scope. After all, our recommendations come from the World Health Organization, not the Every-Country-For-Herself Organization. If we all are smarter from breastfeeding, that’s great – but it’s not much of an economic argument, is it?

Obviously, I am being entirely facetious with the a paragraph. I am far from convinced that breastfeeding makes you smarter or more successful. But I want to point out how convoluted these arguments in favor of breastfeeding truly are. How offensive they are. The implication is that our life’s worth is measured in IQ and financial reward. How about a study showing how traits like patience, kindness, acceptance, creativity, ingenuity are tied to infant feeding?

This study was funded by public health agencies, so these questions are important. When we confuse public health messaging with messaging about IQ and “success” (a quite narrow definition of it, incidentally), we are heading down a very slippery slope.

4. Why aren’t we asking why and how, instead of droning on about the same old tired shit?

If – and this is a strong if – the author’s hypothesis that the fatty acids in breastmilk may be the cause of this bump in IQ (which they imply is what provoked the longer time in school and the greater income – again, sort of a sloppy connection, considering there’s many people with incredible IQs and low levels of education and career success), then why is the take-away “see, everyone should breastfeed!” and not “how can we improve breastmilk substitutes so that all babies get this advantage?”

The study itself is only noteworthy because it followed a lot of people over a lot of years. But remember: associative data is always associative data. Sure, larger groups make for more dramatic assumptions, but at its core, this is just like any other infant feeding study: it shows that there is a slight advantage for people who were breastfed. It doesn’t show how, it doesn’t show why, and it doesn’t tell us squat about anything on the individual level. It does not in any way prove that tour brilliant formula-fed child would have been 3 points more brilliant if you’d managed to breastfeed her. And even if it did prove without a doubt that breastfeeding added 3 points to every single baby’s IQ, it would not tell us how many IQ points a baby might lose if she was starving for the first 6 months of her life, or if her mother was crying and absent all the time, hooked up to a pump, instead of interacting with her. Or if the breastmilk she was getting was laced with any number of substances. Or if her mom didn’t eat enough kale. Or too much kale. Or if her mom ate dairy and she had an undiagnosed MSPI. Or if her dad was an asshole. Or if she was abused and dropped out of school and did drugs that dulled her senses, rendering her unable to even take the bloody IQ test.

My point is, no matter what this study tells us (and it doesn’t tell us anything we hadn’t already heard), the more important thing is what it doesn’t tell us. Life is about so much more than what you eat in the first few months of your life. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter – otherwise I wouldn’t be so crazy about making sure research is done to improve formulas and make sure they are as safe and healthy as possible – but provided your child us getting adequate nutrition, there are just so many other things that can help them along or trip them up.

And don’t hate me for saying this, but you are only one of them. Sure, you’re who they are going to be talking about on the therapists’s couch in 30 year’s time, but they aren’t going to be mad at you for not breastfeeding. They are going to be mad that you missed their school play, that you embarrassed them in front of the cool kids in the parking lot of the mall, that you didn’t support their life’s dream to be a potter specializing in tiny, thimble-sized pots.

So do yourself a favor: throw out the newspaper screaming about breastfed babies “growing up to smarter, richer adults”, turn off the Today Show with its smug newscasters, and talk to your child. Because that’s they want. Not your breastmilk. Not 3 IQ points. They want you, and all your imperfections, and all your concerns for their welfare and your anxieties and your dorkiness and your dysfunction. They just want you.

Until they turn 13. But that’s another story.





Experiences of Formula Feeding: Results of a survey of 1,120 formula-feeding parents

We talk a lot in the Fearless Formula Feeder community about the negative experiences we’ve had with medical professionals, media outlets, and our peers. And this is good, and healthy – we need a place to chew on these bitter feelings, and hopefully digest them so we can move on with our lives. Still, I want to go a step further this year, and really think about (and act upon) what could be made better. I think the time for some positive, real change is now, don’t you?

Considering how much the infant feeding world likes research, I think some data is a good place to start. Mind you, what I’m about to talk about isn’t peer reviewed or even professional compiled data; it’s merely a Survey Monkey study, which any Joe Shmoe can do at any time. This one was written by me, and I am by no means an epidemiologist (although I like to pretend I am, and probably would have tried to be if I could wrap my mind around simple algebra, let alone statistics) or PhD or anything of the sort. So it’s important to take this data with a grain of salt; it’s simply anecdotal, self-reported data crunched by a website to give us some idea of what’s going on for a particular, self-selected group.

Let’s talk a little about what this all means. Basically, I posted this site on the FFF Facebook page. It was shared and spread around a fair amount, but it’s safe to say that the majority of the respondents were FFF members. Which means something, because as a group, we tend to be a few things: educated, interested in parenting, mostly white, mostly lower-middle to middle class, mostly English-speaking (although the respondents included people from the U.S., Canada, the UK, France, United Arab Emirates, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, South Africa, Russia, and Mexico), and people who read a lot and care a lot about formula feeding issues. Because of this, we can’t necessarily assume that our experiences are typical of ALL formula feeding parents, but considering we have a pool of 1120 people, from a variety of geographic areas who formula feed for a number of different reasons, we can infer some things from the data we have here.

That said, I think it’s interesting and helpful to at least collect our experiences in a way that can help us talk about them more clinically, to understand the experience of some formula feeders, who tend to be parents who think a lot about parenting. That’s important, I think, because it suggests that these answers are relevant for care providers who are trying to serve this market.

With no further qualifications and hemming and hawing, I’d like to present you with the results of the first ever Fearless Formula Feeder/I Support You Survey on Formula Feeding Experiences. 


Question 1: When did you begin formula feeding?

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The majority (32%) of respondents began using at least some formula shortly after birth, although breastfed at least once. But those who began using formula after one month were a close second, at 25%, and 19% formula fed from birth.

Real-world implications: If most of these respondents were formula feeding a one-month infant or younger, their responses on the degree of instruction they received carry particular relevance. In completely unscientific terms – we’re talking about tiny babies and brand new, very sleep deprived parents. If anyone needs explicit guidance on something which can, at times, resemble a junior high chemistry experiment, it’s these folks.

Question 2: What were your reasons for choosing formula?

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Respondents were able to select more than one answer here, so please note that there was often a combination of reasons that led an individual parent to formula feed. The most common answers were “I couldn’t produce enough milk” (44%); “My child wasn’t able to breastfeed successfully” (33%); and “Breastfeeding contributed to my postpartum depression” (22%). 17% of respondents chose “I did not want to breastfeed.” As respondents could elaborate on their reasons via a text box, some of the comments received were as follows:

“I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and both childbirth and breastfeeding were intensely triggering.”

“I stopped because it was straining my mental health and I felt like I was missing my daughter’s life because I was so consumed with trying to make breastfeeding work.”

“When they tested my milk with my 2nd child (32 weeker preemie) it was as fatty and nutritious as tap water.”

“Doing all of the nightfeeds by myself was never a realistic option for our family because I earn most of our income, I can’t show up to work massively sleep deprived and I have no opportunity to pump during the workday. This little detail was glossed over in all our prenatal breastfeeding education. When I caught on to it in the first week postpartum my husband and I jointly decided that breastfeeding was not for us.”

“I had mastitis so severe I was hospitalized. It turned into an abscess that they tried 3 times to drain with a needle but it didn’t work. They eventually had to do surgery to remove it. I tried to breastfeed through all that up until the second time they tried to drain it with a needle when I finally decided to stop trying because it was killing me.”

“Child ended up hospitalized due to dehydration.”

“I had postpartum thyroiditis. Only ever… produce(d) 2 ounces of milk per day. It also triggered devastating insomnia that lasted for 12 days. I decided it was killing me, so i stopped.”

Real-world implications: The responses on this question are obviously all self-reported, and there’s no way to verify the validity of medical reasons such as an inability to produce milk. However, I’m in the business of believing moms when they tell me things, so I’m assuming that there was a valid reason each of these moms felt that breastfeeding did not work for them. The point of including this question, for my purposes, was to see the variety of reasons parents chose formula and to get an idea of what would be best discussed prenatally. For example, there are visual cues for Insufficient Glandular Tissue, which physicians could be trained to notice during prenatal exams. Or, for women with histories of depression or sexual trauma, it might be helpful to be more open about the effect breastfeeding may have on them in an individualized, sensitive way – because what is empowering and healing for one woman might be damaging and re-traumatizing to another.

Question 3: When you first began formula feeding, were you given instruction/guidance from medical/hospital staff?

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55% of respondents said that were not given any formal instruction or guidance on how to use formula. While 33% of the rest of the group did get some sort of verbal guidance from a medical professional, only 12% got a pamphlet or written material.

Real-world implications: This seems like a no-brainer – how hard is it, really, to give new parents a brief one-sheet on formula prep, with resources listed for further help?

This leads me to….

Question 4: Where did you receive most of your guidance on using formula?

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53% – just over half- said that the main source of instruction was from the back of a formula can.

Parents are also getting help from other sources – nearly 30% did cite their pediatrician/other medical professional as a resource, so that’s promising. Another 33% said that websites were helpful, and 23% got assistance from friends or relatives.

Real-world implications: Considering pediatricians typically give verbal or written instructions on how to administer baby ibuprofen, and discuss things like television use, potty training, and sleep training with patients, I think it’s odd that we assume the instructions written on the back of a can are sufficient for safe formula prep. Not all parents are native English speakers or fully literate. Not all parents can read tiny print on the back of a can at 2am, when they are sleep deprived and worried about a newborn.


Question 5: Do you feel you received adequate information about formula feeding safety and use?

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While 40% said yes, 34% said “no” and another 22% said “I’m not sure”.

Real-world implications: This suggests more than half of parents using formula aren’t convinced that they were given enough information to feed their babies safely. Not acceptable.

Some additional responses:

“Too many people I spoke to IRL seemed to be compelled to remind me that breast was best. That shaming did not help me during a time when I was very vulnerable and wanted information”

“Eventually, after I did my own research. The nurse in the hospital almost yelled at us for leaving the half consumed bottle of ready-to-feed out at room temperature. We had no idea as new parents what we were supposed to do with formula, and no one had taken the time to explain it to us. So any information I got was from my own research.”

“I feel I had to ask too many questions to the pediatrician that should have just been told to me. For example, in the hospital they gave him 2oz every 4 hrs. When we went home no one told us to change that so he dropped a lot of weight…”

Question 6: If you could choose the way you received info on formula, how would you like it to be given?

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Respondents could choose more than one answer here, but there were two methods which received the vast majority of responses: “a nurse or doctor to talk to you about it” and “a pamphlet or written materials.”

Real world implications: Medical professionals need to be informed on formula feeding safety and practicalities, and be allowed to impart the information in a judgment-free manner. Written materials should also be created to be given to parents at discharge. Since 18% and 16% responded that they’d like to learn about formula via a peer support group or websites/books respectively, it also may be helpful to offer a resource list to all expectant mothers that is truly comprehensive, and not just helpful for those planning to breastfeed.

Question 7: What was the hardest thing you faced when you began using formula?

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This was one of the most interesting questions on the survey, in my opinion; 65% of parents responded that “my own feelings about formula use (guilt, shame, fear, etc.)” was the hardest aspect. The other two popular answers were “the lack of social/emotional support from fellow parents” and “the lack of information on safety, choosing a formula, bottle feeding, etc. (practical issues).”

Real-world implications: Formula feeding parents need a safe space where they can access peer support, work through feeling of guilt/shame/fear, and learn about practical issues of formula feeding. To me, the simplest answer is that we need peer support groups, our own version of La Leche League. Kim Simon and I have been developing a platform for these peer groups through the I Support You organization, and I am really excited that two FFF members have already started their own local chapters (Atlanta and Baltimore). I hope that we can grow this movement so that every major metropolitan area has a resource for formula feeding/combo feeding parents, because as these numbers show, it is desperately needed. Need more proof? Here are some of the open-ended responses to this question:

“I became very depressed and felt worthless as a mother and human being. Luckily, my husband caught me in the middle of writing a good bye letter to my daughter as I had planned to end my life.”

“felt like a failure for not giving the “liquid gold.” I really had to search for good evidence. I remember finding a paper by 3 biostatisticians who had all breastfed. They dug into the evidence. Reduced mortalitly? One study had one infant death in the formula fed group, but the baby fell off the counter!!! Finding unbiased, easily accessible info would have been great. “

“The NICU lacation consultants were relentless. My doctor told me that I most likely would not be able to successfully pump. The NICU nurses understood that it didn’t work out. My baby’s doctor made arrangements for donor milk. However, the lactation consultants hounded me and made me feel like it was my fault it wasn’t working. They added unnecessary stress to a situation that was already a nightmare.”

“I didn’t know any other formula feeders. It wasn’t that my fiends/peers were unsupportive… but they were all breastfeeding and could not relate to formula feeding.”

Question 8: Did you have any trouble with the technical aspects of formula feeding?

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43% of respondents said no, they hadn’t had any issues in this regard. Of the remaining respondents, the most commonly-faced issue was reflux/other GI issues, followed closely by “I had trouble finding a formula that worked for my child.” A small but significant amount (14%) “(were) confused about formula or supplementing and felt lost on where to go for help.”

Real-world implications: More than half of those surveyed endured some sort of struggle with the technical aspects of formula feeding, suggesting that using formula is not as simple as “add powder and water” for many parents. I hear this excuse a lot from those who deny the importance of formula feeding education and support – that it doesn’t have a learning curve, that doctors don’t need to know much about it because every formula is the same, etc., etc. And that is certainly true for some people, but not for all. Not for over half of us.

Question 9: Did you experience any emotional challenges due to your choice to formula feed?

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Only 18% of respondents said no, that they hadn’t experienced emotional challenges. The rest (who were allowed to choose more than one answer) mostly struggled with their choice or need to use formula (58%), and worried what others would think (55%). 35% felt “left out by other moms” and a quarter of respondents (26%) felt that the emotions around infant feeding contributed to postpartum depression and/or anxiety.

The open-ended responses included:

“I would have felt very comfortable in my decision to formula feed from the start if I had not been pushed into breastfeeding by the hospital, and also my mother and stepmother made me feel incredibly guilty. I had asked for info on bottle feeding while in the hospital and was snubbed. These issues contributed to my emotional challenges. It took almost 4 months for me to realize everything was okay.”

“I felt guilty for not feeling more guilty. Also felt like I didn’t try hard enough and that subconsciously maybe I was using PPD risk as an excuse. Oh, and I ended up with PPD anyway.”

“I was worried that all the negative health outcomes would come true- it’s pretty dirty to scare a mom into thinking that one choice could make her child overweight, less intelligent, and generally unhealthy. Happily, none of these things have come true in 3 years!”

“Despite knowing better, I felt guilty that I wasn’t giving my baby “the best.” That I hadn’t “tried hard enough” for her. The pediatrician at the hospital compared bottle feeding to “taking your baby to the drive through.” Thankfully her actual pediatricians were wonderful and told me it absolutely makes no difference either way.”

“I did feel some guilt about not breastfeeding, though I got over it rather quickly. What resonates more with me, though, is the fact that I didn’t want to breastfeed in the first place, but felt pressured friends, my community, the hospital, etc. to do it. And while it’s true that my kid had serious reflux, allergies, etc., and I had production problems, I also just HATED breastfeeding. And even sites like FFF sometimes make it sound like it’s only ok to FF if you tried to breastfeed and couldn’t. I’d love for women to have permission to just chose not to breastfeed in the first place.”

“I knew that there was no way that I could carry on attempting to BF and pump while still taking care of myself and my child (literally I would feed, attempt to pump, and he would be ready to eat again). But I could not relay that kind of feeling of desperation and failure to other moms who had no problems BF. I thought I was doing something wrong.”

“…I was confident in my decision about FF from birth, well educated and versed BUT still got side-eyed and looks from some people. No matter how confident you are when there are people who truly believe formula is poison and if you don’t BF you don’t deserve to have children (even when you fought with infertility to get said child) it’s disheartening. The lack of correct info on FF and the slew of misinformation on the benefits BF make it difficult to even the playing field.”

Real-world implications: Mothers are hurting. When over 80% of formula feeding parents are talking about the emotional ramifications of their feeding method, we need to sit up and listen. We have a large body of breastfeeding research now, but an abysmally small body of research on the effect of postpartum depression and adjustment difficulties on both mother and baby (not to mention other children, partners, employment, future relationships, etc.). If the way we approach infant feeding is contributing to emotional duress in a generation of parents, it seems worthwhile to reassess the risk/benefit of promoting breastfeeding in the way we currently do.

If we insist on continuing down the same path, then we need to also make sure that the negative experiences of formula feeding parents are tempered by appropriate measures. This means ensuring that they are treated with respect and with regard to personal autonomy; setting up social support systems like peer groups or pre/post-natal classes which address other methods of infant feeding; and perhaps providing sensitivity training for those dealing with newly postpartum or expectant parents so that they learn to impart the benefits of breastfeeding in a manner devoid of shame, guilt, or fear-mongering. It is possible, and it is well worth it.

Question 10: What country do you live in?

Most respondents were from English-speaking countries: the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Real-world implications: Not sure we can take much away from this, except that the reach of FFF (which is how respondents were recruited) is mostly in the English-speaking world. But while we’re on the subject… let’s address the need for culturally-specific infant feeding recommendations and policies. Even within the countries we’re discussing here – which on the surface have many similarities – there are demographic, socioeconomic, religions, cultural, and political differences. People cite the World Health Organization as a good source for formula feeding best practices, but it’s rather simplistic to try and make this issue universal. Mixing formula in a place with unsafe water and hygiene issues is quite different than doing so in a Lysol-happy kitchen using filtered, purified, boiled water and a dishwasher with a “sterilize” cycle. And that’s not even mentioning the impracticality of assuming that genetic, lifestyle, and dietary factors do not affect biological processes; to say IGT only affects 1% of the Swedish population, for example, means nothing to a demographic of Eastern European Jewish women in Manhattan. There are higher rates of breast cancer and Crohn’s disease in some ethnicities; higher rates of genetic diseases in others. Why should breast tissue be immune to these same factors?

I know I’m going off into tangents here, but the point is: it is time to think of infant feeding with more nuance, even in seemingly homogeneous populations. At the same time, we need to recognize that feelings of guilt, shame and fear are common in Western, relatively privileged demographics, regardless of breastfeeding rates and months of paid maternity leave. This is complicated stuff, and requires far more complex analysis than we’ve been given it. It’s time to step it up.

Question 11: What would have helped your experience with formula be more positive?

Screenshot 2015-01-27 at 3.16.57 PM Screenshot 2015-01-27 at 3.17.39 PM

The highest amount of responses went to the following (again, respondents could choose multiple answers): more support and guidance from medical professionals (50%), more support and guidance from peers (45%), prenatal preparation for formula feeding (50%) and a peer support group for bottle feeding or combo-feeding parents (44%).

Real-world implications: All of this would be so simple to accomplish. If medical professionals were not scared to discuss formula, lest it be considered giving women “permission” to not breastfeed; if formula could be discussed in prenatal classes in an honest, clear, factual way; if we could stop making it “breast vs. bottle” and just make it two different, sometimes compatible, ways to feed a baby…. just imagine what could happen.

When La Leche League began, it was due to the inadequate support for breastfeeding mothers from society and physicians. While there are still battles to be fought, we are seeing more and more support for breastfeeding (as long as its done within the parameters of what is deemed “socially acceptable” – ie, for no more/no less than a year or two – which is most definitely a problem we need to address), if not from society as a whole, at least from the medical establishment, the government (at least in lip-service and funding for Baby Friendly and corporate lactation programs) and the parenting community. Now may be the time for a formula-feeding equivalent of LLL to do the same noble work – ensuring that moms (and dads – formula feeding is not gender-specific, and dads need to be included more in this conversation, especially those that are primary caregivers) are getting the support they need, when the powers that be cannot provide it themselves.

I will be following up with another survey soon, which will examine if there truly is a need for more “education” about formula feeding, or if it really is simple enough to merit the lack of focus given to it in prenatal and postnatal settings. But until then, I want to leave you with a few more of the comments left in the open-ended sections of this survey. My hope is that this will inspire those with the money and resources to conduct actual, peer-reviewed research on these topics to do so. At the very least, I hope it gets us thinking. Because we need to be thinking, and not just shouting at each other, endlessly, about who knows best.


“I just wish that they would give better instruction at the hospital to moms who choose to formula feed about mixing, feedings and choosing the right formula for your child. They send lactation consultants for breastfeeding moms. Why can’t they teach formula feeding moms a few pointers about formula feeding? We are all feeding babies. Why give one method so much attention and neglect another entirely? All that matters is babies get fed. Is that not the most important objective?”

“If there was more support (from) medical practitioners perhaps breastfeeding mums would be less critical.”

“I took a breastfeeding class, but looking back I wish it would have been a general baby feeding class. To learn about pros and cons of breastfeeding, formula feeding, using bottles, and starting solids. Because although not everyone will breastfeed, everyone will at least need to learn about several of these options.”

“I  had no idea what I was doing and didn’t even know where I should look to find the information. It’s hard to find good formula info online and I didn’t know what to trust, especially when I was emotionally and physically exhausted and felt judged by others as well as by myself.”

“Can you fix the world and let everyone know that formula feeding isn’t bad? As long as you feed with love. This is such a touchy topic and I just wish everyone would let it go bc they only make it worse for moms. I also hate the attitude that formula feeding is okay IF you tried to breastfeed or IF you have low supply. I really want the attitude to be that there is nothing wrong with a mom who chooses to formula feed from the get go. Essentially if you could fix the whole attitude about how we feed our babies that would be great.”


Two sides to every story – except when you’re talking about breastfeeding

I’m starting to wonder if the health journalism community needs some lessons in scientific reading comprehension, or if we’re all just so convinced of the benefits of breastfeeding that we read every study with rose colored glasses. Either way, the discrepancies in the reporting of a group of new infant feeding studies are so alarming that I don’t even know where to start.

You know what? I do know where to start. How about the studies themselves.



All come from a special supplement published in the journal Pediatrics, using evidence from the 2005–2007 IFPS II (Infant Feeding Practices Study II) and follow-up data collected when the children were 6 years old.

A couple articles from this publication are specifically making headlines, the first being Breastfeeding and the Risk of Infection at 6 Years. The results:

The most common past-year infections were colds/upper respiratory tract (66%), ear (25%), and throat (24%) infections. No associations were found between breastfeeding and colds/upper respiratory tract, lung, or urinary tract infections. Prevalence of ear, throat, and sinus infections and number of sick visits differed according to breastfeeding duration, exclusivity, and timing of supplementing breastfeeding with formula (P < .05). Among children ever breastfed, children breastfed for ≥9 months had lower odds of past-year ear (adjusted odds ratio [aOR]: 0.69 [95% confidence interval (95% CI): 0.48–0.98]), throat (aOR: 0.68 [95% CI: 0.47–0.98]), and sinus (aOR: 0.47 [95% CI: 0.30–0.72]) infections compared with those breastfed >0 to <3 months. High breast milk intensity (>66.6%) during the first 6 months was associated with lower odds of sinus infection compared with low breast milk intensity (<33.3%) (aOR: 0.53 [95% CI: 0.35–0.79]).

Translation: No link between breastfeeding for any duration and the risk of colds/upper respiratory infections, lung infections, or UTIs. Babies breastfed for any amount of time had lower risk of ear, throat and sinus infections, and babies primarily breastfed for the first 6 months had lower odds of sinus infections.

The second one to cause a stir is Infant Feeding Practices and Reported Food Allergies at 6 Years. The researchers found:

In this cohort of 6-year-old US children, socioeconomic (higher maternal education and income) and atopic (family history of food allergy and infant eczema) factors were significant predictors of pFA (probable food allergy). Our analysis did not find a significant association between pFA and feeding practices at established dietary milestones in infancy. However, among children who did not have pFA by age 1 year, exclusive breastfeeding of ≥4 months was marginally associated with lower odds of developing pFA at age 6 years. This potential benefit was not observed among the high-risk atopic children, which suggests the need to separate children according to atopic risk when studying preventive benefits of exclusive breastfeeding on food allergy.

Translation: Kids in higher socioeconomic demographics, kids with higher-educated moms, and those with family history of food allergies were at higher risk for food allergies by the age of 6 than their peers. The only time breastfeeding or not seemed to make a difference was in kids with none of the risk factors I just mentioned, who had been breastfed at least 4 months.

A slew of other studies were also included in this supplement, and were summarized by a team of AAP researchers:

The first set of articles examines child health outcomes at 6 years of age. The study by Li and colleagues demonstrates that longer breastfeeding and later introduction of foods or beverages other than breast milk are associated with lower rates of ear, throat, and sinus infections in the year preceding the survey. However, they find no associations with upper or lower respiratory or urinary tract infections. Luccioli and co-workers find no significant associations between exclusive breastfeeding duration or timing of complementary food introduction and overall food allergy at 6 years old. Pan and colleagues examine childhood obesity at 6 years of age and show that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by infants doubles the odds of later obesity. Lind et al describe how breastfeeding is associated with various aspects of psychosocial development. They show a protective relationship between duration of breastfeeding and emotional, conduct, and total psychosocial difficulties, but these relationships become statistically nonsignificant after other confounding factors are controlled for. Though certainly not conclusive, these studies demonstrate that infant feeding is predictive of some later health outcomes (eg, some infectious diseases and childhood obesity) but not others (eg, food allergy and psychosocial development).

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported these findings, publishing an entry on its website called “How infant feeding practices affect children at age 6: A follow up.” Great, neutral, accurate title. Here is what they report:

The longer a mother breastfeeds and waits to introduce foods and drinks other than breastmilk, the lower the odds her child will have ear, throat, and sinus infections at 6 years of age.
Children who breastfeed longer consume water, fruit, and vegetables more often at 6 years of age and consume fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages less often.
When children drink sugar-sweetened beverages during the first year of life, this doubles the odds that they will drink sugar-sweetened beverages at 6 years of age.
When children eat fruit and vegetables infrequently during the first year of life, this increases the odds that they will continue to eat fruit and vegetables infrequently at 6 years of age.
Study authors conclude the data emphasize the need to establish healthy eating behaviors early in life, as this could predict healthy eating behaviors later in life. For more information about the IFPS-II and the IFPS-II follow-up study, visit

Pretty clear, right? 

Apparently not.

From ABC News: Breastfeeding May Influence Kids’ Eating Habits at Age 6

“Childhood nutrition experts not involved with the study said the findings provide additional weight to the importance of shaping a child’s diet early. Dr. David Katz, editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said the findings serve to underscore the long-established relationship between breastfeeding and health in mothers and children.


“The question we need to be asking is not ‘Why should mothers breastfeed?’ but, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’” Katz said. “For all mammals, our first food is breast milk.”

For the love of god. At least now we know about the publication bias of Childhood Obesity. 

No mention of the fact that the researchers themselves stressed that breastfeeding was only protective in certain ways, and not others, and that aside from consuming more veggies/fruits/water, there were no other nutritional advantages associated with breastfeeding in this study. No mention that they found no positive association between breastfeeding and food allergies in the highest-risk populations.Just a skewed interpretation that makes it sound like breastfeeding is the MOST important part of your child’s future health and nutrition, instead of ONE important part.

Strange framing also comes from

Breast-feeding in infancy also increased the likelihood that children would be consuming a healthy diet later on. At age 6, children who were breast-fed drank sugary beverages less often and consumed water, fruits and vegetables more often than those who were bottle-fed, CDC researchers found.


That all makes sense, Scanlon said. “We know from other studies that children’s eating behaviors and preferences develop very early and are influenced by a variety of factors,” she explained. “They seem to have an innate preference for sweet and salty foods and dislike bitter flavors, which are found in vegetables.”


That can be changed when children are exposed to in utero and through breast milk to the flavors found in vegetables, Scanlon said. “Breast-fed infants are more open to different flavors,” she added.

Sure, that makes sense. But considering the same study found that breastfed infants were just as likely to eat junky savory/salty snacks, I am not sure that one could say breastfeeding = “healthy diet”. What the study did find was that they drank a statistically significant less juice, and ate more fruits and veggies at age 6. My daughter can’t stand juice and eats her weight in brussel sprouts, broccoli, and blueberries. But she also pours sugar on oatmeal and sneaks chocolate chips from my fridge and basically lives on soy yogurt. I wouldn’t call that a “healthy diet”.

WebMD’s title suggests a much different story than the one we can glean from the studies – “Breast-Feeding Lowers Kids’ Allergy, Infection Risk” – and frames the findings in a way that is…. well, see for yourself:

They found that children who had been exclusively breast-fed for four months or more had about half the odds of developing a food allergy compared to children who had been breast-fed for a lesser amount of time.


As Wu noted, the finding did have one limitation, however. “While breast-feeding did not decrease food allergies in high-risk populations, such as families who already have a history of food allergy, there was a decrease in low-risk populations,” she said.

“One limitation, however”? Um, considering the highest rates of allergy were found in the “high risk populations”, and this particular finding was somewhat brushed aside by the researchers themselves, it’s puzzling that WebMD latched on (sorry) to it.

And then -

Another expert said the studies provide valuable information.


Nina Eng, chief clinical dietitian at Plainview Hospital in Plainview, N.Y., said the findings “point out two of the many important benefits of breast-feeding.”


“These articles provide evidence that should inspire new moms to breast-feed their children,” she said.


Does it? Will it? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think any of these findings are so convincing that they might “inspire” a mom to breastfeed if she’s already decided not to. For those who have chosen to breastfeed, sure, maybe they will be somewhat heartening…. but I find it seriously odd that the media is spinning these studies as evidence of a “breastfeeding boost” (thank you, instead of the more realistic framing: we now have a body of evidence that shows that choosing better foods at weaning and being responsive to feeding cues may have lasting effects.

In other words, give your kids produce and don’t force feed them. But that’s not as sexy as talking about breastfeeding, so…. BOOBS. There you go. Problem solved.


Why The World is So Screwed Up About Breastfeeding Research, In Several Paragraphs & A Few Headlines

The headlines:

“Study: Breastfeeding can ward off postpartum depression” (Press TV)

“Breastfeeding mothers less likely to get postnatal depression” (The Independent)

“Breastfeeding ‘helps prevent postnatal depression’” (ITV)

“Breastfeeding could help prevent postnatal depression, says Cambridge researchers” (Cambridge News

“Breastfeeding ‘cuts depression risk’, according to study” (BBC

“Failing to breastfeed may double risk of depression in mothers: study” (Telegraph)

“Mothers who breastfeed are 50% less likely to suffer postnatal depression” (The Independent)

“Mothers who choose not to breastfeed are ‘twice as likely to get postnatal depression because they miss out on mood-boosting hormones released by the process’” (Daily Mail, UK)

“Breastfeeding Keep Mothers Happy and Reduces Postnatal Depression” (International Business Times)

“Breastfeeding moms have lower depression risk” (Health Care Professionals Network)

“Breastfeeding protects mothers from postnatal depression, study finds” (The Australian)


And the reality:

New Evidence on Breastfeeding and Postpartum Depression: The Importance of Understanding Women’s Intentions.

Borra C, Iacovou M, Sevilla A.


This study aimed to identify the causal effect of breastfeeding on postpartum depression (PPD), using data on mothers from a British survey, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Multivariate linear and logistic regressions were performed to investigate the effects of breastfeeding on mothers’ mental health measured at 8 weeks, 8, 21 and 32 months postpartum. The estimated effect of breastfeeding on PPD differed according to whether women had planned to breastfeed their babies, and by whether they had shown signs of depression during pregnancy. For mothers who were not depressed during pregnancy, the lowest risk of PPD was found among women who had planned to breastfeed, and who had actually breastfed their babies, while the highest risk was found among women who had planned to breastfeed and had not gone on to breastfeed. We conclude that the effect of breastfeeding on maternal depression is extremely heterogeneous, being mediated both by breastfeeding intentions during pregnancy and by mothers’ mental health during pregnancy. Our results underline the importance of providing expert breastfeeding support to women who want to breastfeed; but also, of providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed, but who find themselves unable to.

In other words, women who wanted to breastfeed and did = low risk of PPD. Women who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t = high risk of PPD. The researchers stress “providing compassionate support for women who had intended to breastfeed but…found themselves unable to”.

This does not prove that breastfeeding cuts depression risk. It proves that women who had a goal and met it tend to have lower rates of depression. It does not prove that there is a biological reason that breastfeeding may be protective against depression. That may indeed be the case, but then the depression risk would have been similarly high in women who never intended to breastfeed.

Our societal confirmation bias is so damn strong, that we blatantly overlook the finding that suggests something potentially negative about breastfeeding promotion. But here’s something to ponder: while we can’t force insufficient glandular tissue to produce adequate milk, or force women to breastfeed who don’t want to, we CAN ensure that every mother gets support in her feeding journey. We CAN listen to research that suggests the pressure to breastfeed is contributing to feelings of guilt, shame, and judgment – a potent trifecta of emotions for those prone to depression – and do something about it. If we are going to take this one study as “truth”, as so many parenting-related studies are mistakenly interpreted, something good might as well come out of it.

At this point, there is a pretty clear correlation between not breastfeeding and PPD. Instead of using this as ammunition against formula use, we could be asking the tougher questions: Why are women who don’t breastfeed more depressed? If it is something biological, wouldn’t the rates of PPD have been skyrocketing in past generation where breastfeeding was rare? If we stop making breastfeeding seem like the only-best-right choice to raise a happy, healthy child, would it mitigate this risk?



One of my favorite quotes about research comes from the Nobel-prize winning scientist who discovered the importance of vitamin C, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi: “Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” These days, the reverse seems to be true – research is to confirm what everybody else has seen, and everybody has already thought. This needs to change, and it won’t, as long as our society and media turns even the most interesting findings into self-confirming soundbytes.


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