Win-win or lose-lose: Study suggests breast may not “beat” bottle in multiple long-term outcomes

Every morning, I receive Google alerts for several terms: breastfeeding, formula feeding, infant formula, breastmilk, etc. And every morning, I brace myself, waiting for the inevitable headline that will cause panic among bottle feeding moms, or re-ignite the incessant argument between breastfeeding advocates and formula feeding parents (as if it ever needs reigniting – it’s like one of those trick birthday candles, always sparking back to life even after you’ve wasted all your breath), or force me to take some semblance of a “position” on an issue that is hardly ever black and white.

One might expect that this morning, I would’ve broken out in that annoying Lego Movie song. You know, ’cause everything is awesome!!!!!

Source: connectedprincipals.com

Source: connectedprincipals.com

News broke that a study out of Ohio State, which examined sibling pairs where one child was breastfed and the other formula fed, had found that there was no statistically significant advantage to breastfeeding for 11 outcomes. These outcomes included things like obesity, asthma, and various measures of childhood intelligence and behavior. As the study explains:

“Breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are socially patterned. Previous research has documented startling racial and socioeconomic disparities in infant feeding practices. However, much of the empirical evidence regarding the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing does not adequately address the high degree of selection into breastfeeding. To address this important shortcoming, we employ sibling comparisons in conjunction with 25 years of panel data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to approximate a natural experiment and more accurately estimate what a particular child’s outcome would be if he/she had been differently fed during infancy…

 

Results from between-family comparisons suggest that both breastfeeding status and duration are associated with beneficial long-term child outcomes. This trend was evident for 10 out of the 11 outcomes examined here. When we more fully account for unobserved heterogeneity between children who are breastfed and those who are not, we are forced to reconsider the notion that breastfeeding unequivocally results in improved childhood health and wellbeing. In fact, our findings provide preliminary evidence to the contrary. When comparing results from between- to within-family estimates, coefficients for 10 of the 11 outcomes are substantially attenuated toward zero and none reach statistical significance (p < 0.05). Moreover, the signs of some of the regression coefficients actually change direction suggesting that, for some outcomes, breastfed children may actually be worse off than children who were not breastfed.”

 

Source: Colen and Ramey, Is Breast Truly Best? Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling ComparisonsSocial Science & Medicine, Available online 29 January 2014

I will admit that the comments made in several news outlets by the lead author of this study, Cynthia G. Colen, have made me want to run through the streets, acting as a one-woman ticker-tape parade in her honor. (Case in point: “I’m not saying breast-feeding is not beneficial, especially for boosting nutrition and immunity in newborns. But if we really want to improve maternal and child health in this country, let’s also focus on things that can really do that in the long term – like subsidized day care, better maternity leave policies and more employment opportunities for low-income mothers that pay a living wage, for example.”) But I’m not celebrating the results of this study, any more than I’d celebrate one that said formula feeding caused children to sprout green hair from their chiny-chin-chins and opt to live under bridges.

Why? Because this shouldn’t be a freaking contest.

The backlash that comes out of studies like these feels more like if someone came out with research that claimed fried Oreos were just as healthy as raw kale. Instead, we should be approaching it as if someone came up with a way to make a vitamin supplement that would offer similar benefits to kale, for those who hated the taste. One is natural, one is synthetic; one is manufactured, one exists organically. But for those of us who don’t or can’t eat raw kale on a daily basis, a good substitute is a godsend. (And maybe helps us justify those fried Oreos. A girl can dream.) Now, a study showing comparable effects of the supplement to the organic kale would not negate the fact that kale, grown in your own garden, is a nutritious, amazing thing – and tastes quite delicious to those of us who have a palate for it. If we started telling the kale aficionados that the supplement was better in some way, that would be a problem. But if the people who loved kale insisted that the supplement wasn’t a valid option and was somehow morally wrong, that would be a problem, too. Chances are, if we were really talking about kale, nobody would care all that much. The people who liked kale would eat it, and those who didn’t, might opt for the supplement – feeling confident due to the research that suggested the supplement was a viable option.

But we’re not talking about kale. We’re talking about breastmilk. And that, apparently, is where we all fall apart, and are rendered completely incapable of rational, measured discussion.

What the Golen/Ramsey study shows should not be controversial. The results should be reassuring- evidence that formula feeding does not condemn a child to a life of obesity, poor health, and lackluster intelligence; proof that whether a woman chooses, or is capable of, feeding a baby from her breast is not what defines her as a mother.

Imagine, for a minute, if we didn’t compare breast and bottle, but rather celebrated BOTH as valid, safe, healthy options for mothers and babies. Accepting that formula has legitimacy – that there is a reason it was invented (out of a need and a desire for a safe breastmilk substitute), and a reason why a woman may decide that a substitute is preferable – should not threaten those of us who celebrate breastfeeding. Yes, we should continue to rage against predatory formula marketing, especially in the developing world. Yes, we should speak up and speak out when companies (hello, Delta) retreat to 1953 when they express their breastfeeding policies. (For that matter, we shouldn’t need breastfeeding policies – if children are allowed, breastfeeding should be allowed. End of story.) Yes, we should ensure that women are entitled to adequate pumping breaks, and given solid breastfeeding assistance, and are supported by solid research regarding medications and breastmilk and best practices from pediatric professionals. But none of that means formula has to be Public Enemy No. 1. None of that means parents who formula feed should be left floundering due to an embarrassing lack of support and education. And for the love of god, none of that means we should be smugly celebrating when formula fed babies are shown to fare poorly, or gleefully rejoicing when and if the opposite occurs.

This is one study, with its own set of limitations and biases, like any other study in the modern canon of infant feeding research. But it’s a good study, artfully designed, and one that raises some extremely important questions about how the emphasis on feeding babies might be distracting us from the real work of supporting better maternal and childhood outcomes. Because speaking of retreating to 1953, it’s awfully easy to shove the responsibility for future generations onto women’s chests, rather than addressing true social inequities that can impact children’s lives. Maybe if we stopped wasting energy trying to prove how evil formula is, and just accepted it as part of life – not a slap in the face to our mammary glands, or an excuse for idiots to treat nursing mothers as horribly as they do now – we would have more energy to understand and destroy these inequities.

Or, you know, we could do what we always do and spend time looking for vague connections to the formula industry to discredit the study authors. Because that’s a really great way of helping families thrive.

 

 

 

The biggest problem with the breastfeeding discourse has nothing to do with breastfeeding

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, it’s not.

As any journalist, blogger, or parenting-forum moderator can attest, merely mentioning the words “breastfeeding” or “formula feeding” will create controversy – or at least a comment thread that derails within the first three posts. It’s virtually impossible for someone not to feel offended. It happens on both sides of the debate; some breastfeeding advocates see red anytime a person writes favorably about formula, while some formula feeding mothers are guilty of taking it all too personally, and assuming that every positive aspect of breastfeeding is dig at their lack of lactation.

This bugs me, being someone who writes about this topic regularly, because it dilutes the conversation. We lose track of what we’re talking about, and lose the chance to understand, to evolve, to connect.

Of course, this problem is endemic to any hot-button parenting issue. Circumcision, sleep training, working vs. staying at home, vaccinations… But when it comes to breastfeeding, what I’m talking about goes far beyond the mommy war bullshit. We’ve apparently lost the ability to discuss anything to do with breastfeeding and formula without heaping layers of preconceived notions, philosophical ideals, and emotional reactions onto whatever’s being discussed. Even if the conversation takes place in a respected medical journal, the halls of a hospital, or a human rights nonprofit.

With that said, I want to make something clear: this post is not about breastfeeding. It is not about the benefits of breastfeeding. It is not about a woman’s right to breastfeed or formula feed. It is not about you, or me, or your sister-in-law. It’s about language, interpretation, and bias. If it helps, substitute the word “breastfeeding” for something less emotionally loaded. “Drinking coffee”. “Wearing palazzo pants.” Whatever.

In the past month, two stories popped up, buried so deep in the news that only someone who obsessively googles terms like “infant feeding” and “lactation” would have seen them. They were about studies showing negative associations with breastfeeding (see? Didn’t your heart start beating a bit faster? …Negative associations with palazzo pants. That’s better, right?) The first one found that longer durations of breastfeeding (past 12 months) were associated with higher rates of a specific form of breast cancer in Mexican and Mexican-American women. The evidence was based on subject recall of breastfeeding history, in a specific population. All I will say about the study itself is that it is one, isolated result; more research must be done before anyone can make proclamations about whether women of Mexican descent might want to wean after a year.

Which is basically what I say about every infant feeding study. These results do not prove a causal relationship. It would be patently false and extremely irresponsible to have headlines screeching “breastfeeding causes breast cancer!”

Luckily, there were no such headlines. The story didn’t receive much coverage in major news outlets, but here were the headlines I did find:

Breastfeeding May Increase Cancer Risk for Mexican-American Moms (http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/health/Breastfeeding–Cancer-Rules-May-Not-Apply-to-Some-226050001.html)

Lactation may be linked to aggressive cancer in Mexican women

http://health.ucsd.edu/news/releases/Pages/2013-10-01-lactation-linked-to-cancer-in-Mexican-women.aspx

Women of Mexican descent more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive form of breast cancer http://www.news-medical.net/news/20131002/Women-of-Mexican-descent-more-likely-to-be-diagnosed-with-aggressive-form-of-breast-cancer.aspx

Mexican Women’s Breast Cancer Risk Tied to Breast-Feeding? http://healthcare.utah.edu/womenshealth/healthlibrary/doc.php?type=6&id=680757

Notice all the qualifiers. May be linked. More likely. And my favorite example, the question mark at the end of the last headline.

Now, let’s compare these measured, accurate headlines with those that stemmed from similar studies (self-reported data, specific populations, single studies rather than meta-analyses) that showed a positive effect of breastfeeding:

Breastfeeding reduces cancer risk http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-88785/Breast-feeding-reduces-cancer-risk.html

Breastfeeding Cuts Breast Cancer Risk http://www.webmd.com/breast-cancer/news/20070417/breastfeeding-cuts-breast-cancer-risk

Study: Breastfeeding Decreases Cancer Risk http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9656285

Breastfeeding Protects Against Breast Cancer http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/08/10/us-breastfeeding-cancer-idUSTRE5795CZ20090810

Not one qualifier to be found.

But FFF, you’re arguing semantics, you say. Perhaps. But how can we argue that subliminal messages that come through the advertising of formula or bottles can so greatly affect a woman’s breastfeeding intention, and then argue that the language used in widely-read headlines doesn’t make an impact?

Not convinced? Let’s go beyond the headlines. The one quote from the lead researcher of the breastfeeding/cancer in Mexican women study used in the media was this:

“Our results are both puzzling and disconcerting because we do not want to give the wrong message about breastfeeding…If you treat breast cancer as one disease, breastfeeding is beneficial to both mother and baby. That should not be dismissed.”

Puzzling? Disconcerting? Science needs to be free of bias. It’s perfectly acceptable to be “surprised” by findings, but “disconcerted”? And as for the point about ”breast cancer as one disease“, this is not the sentiment expressed in the quotes from articles reporting a positive effect, many of which proudly extrapolate their specific findings and make sweeping statements about breastfeeding promotion:

Clearly, the researchers conclude, breastfeeding is associated with “multiple health benefits” for both mother and child…”That’s why we need supportive hospital policies, paid maternity leave, and workplace accommodations so that women can meet their breastfeeding goals…” (source: Reuters)

The same double standard popped up a few weeks later, when a study hit the news which found that babies breastfed longer than one year, as well as babies introduced to gluten after 6 months, had an increased risk for celiac disease. Again, hardly any media coverage; the one major outlet (Yahoo News) that covered it used the headline “Parent’s Feeding Choices May Raise Baby’s Risk for Celiac Disease“. Absolutely accurate headline, but no mention of breastfeeding. Granted, there were two findings that came from this study; both of which did involve a feeding “choice”. What I find interesting, though, is that whenever formula is associated with something negative – even if that particular finding is buried in a mess of other data – the headlines make sure to mention it. (Remember the arsenic-in-baby-formula scare of 2012?)

This study had many flaws. (Science of Mom has a great explanation of what these were over on her blog, if you’re interested.) But it didn’t have more flaws than 99% of the formula-is-risky studies which we are subjected to on a weekly basis, none of which are handled with the same degree of intelligence and moderation.

In Bottled Up, I discuss the problem of publication bias, and the professional death knell it is to report or support anything that detracts from the supreme perfection of breastfeeding. This is a bigger problem than one might believe – because if the end goal is to find ways to reduce disease and increase health in populations, we should be striving for information, not propaganda. And this is why I fight so hard to reframe how we discuss and promote breastfeeding – because if we are basing all of our support for the practice on science, then we run the risk of bastardizing – or at least “tweaking” – that science to justify our promotion.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. But when it comes to infant feeding science, the results are never just the results.

Can breastfeeding concerns be overcome with support? Depends on what “support” means

Guess what? Women are having trouble meeting their breastfeeding goals.

Contain your excitement.

Apparently, this is news to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and every major news outlet in North America. The study causing such shock and awe came out this Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers used self-reported data (i.e., interviews) from 532 first-time moms giving birth at a particular medical center (can’t find where, and due to geographical differences in levels of breastfeeding support and acceptance, I think this is vital information that at least one of the articles could have shared with us). The women were asked prenatally about their breastfeeding intentions and concerns, and then re-interviewed at 3, 7, 14, 30 and 60 days postpartum. According to Reuters:

During those interviews, women raised 49 unique breastfeeding concerns, a total of 4,179 times. The most common ones included general difficulty with infant feeding at the breast – such as an infant being fussy or refusing to breastfeed – nipple or breast pain and not producing enough milk.

 

Between 20 and 50 percent of mothers stopped breastfeeding altogether or added formula to the mix sooner than they had planned to do when they were pregnant.

 

Of the 354 women who were planning to exclusively breastfeed for at least two months, for example, 166 started giving their babies formula between one and two months.

 

And of 406 women who had planned to at least partially breastfeed for two months, 86 stopped before then.

Given these results, the study authors come to the conclusion:

Breastfeeding concerns are highly prevalent and associated with stopping breastfeeding. Priority should be given to developing strategies for lowering the overall occurrence of breastfeeding concerns and resolving, in particular, infant feeding and milk quantity concerns occurring within the first 14 days postpartum. (Source: Pediatrics)

 

The headlines, as usual, were both amusing and infuriating. “Nursing Troubles May Prompt New Moms to Give Up Sooner”. “Early breastfeeding challenges make women quit.” “Some moms discontinue breastfeeding within two months die to nursing difficulties”. And my personal favorite, “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

One might easily blame the media for their usual skewering of the science to make for a juicier headline, but one can hardly blame them when the experts giving interviews about this study say things like, “It’s a shame that those early problems can be the difference between a baby only getting breast milk for a few days and going on to have a positive breastfeeding relationship for a year or longer… If we are able to provide mothers with adequate support, 95 percent of all breastfeeding problems are reversible.”

So, what’s my issue? I think the study is fine. Sort of a no-brainer, considering they could’ve came to the same conclusion years ago had they just listened to moms instead of insisting we just needed more convincing of the benefits of breastfeeding, and we’d all magically lactate to the satisfaction of the World Health Organization. But the quote above (from Laurie Nommsen-Rivers, one of the study authors) makes me wonder if the results of the study are being taken in the wrong context.

The focus is on moms not getting enough support –  something that I 100% agree needs to be focused on. Like, yesterday. But where the experts quoted in these articles and I part ways is on what type of support is needed. This passage from NPR illustrates my point:

The researchers didn’t do physical exams of the moms and babies, so they don’t know what was happening for sure. But they speculate that some of the first-time mothers may have misread the babies’ cues, mistaking fussiness for hunger, for instance, or thinking the babies weren’t getting enough milk when they’re doing just fine…

 

Once again, the assumption is that women are wrong about their bodies, and about their babies. The study authors surmise that access to lactation consultants in the first week postpartum, after hospital discharge, will be the solution to many of these problems. Again, I absolutely agree that this is a great start. And yet – reading through the scores of FFF Friday stories, I have to wonder… is this really going to make a difference, given the current state of our breastfeeding culture? How many LCs have we all seen, cumulatively? How many were bullied or shamed by medical professionals? How many of us have been told our babies were fine, only to end up in the ER with a dehydrated infant? How many of us were told – by professional lactation consultants and pediatricians – that every woman can breastfeed, and that we should just keep on nursing and it will all work out?

Looking at this study, this is what I see: a ton of women are claiming to have pain, trouble latching, and concerns that their babies aren’t getting enough milk. NPR also reports that the group with the least amount of reported problems was comprised mostly of women under 30, and women of Hispanic origin. That begs for further research, doesn’t it? Could age and legitimate lactation failure be associated? What about race/ethnicity? Are there conditions more prevalent in older, non-Hispanic populations that are also associated with breastfeeding problems?

And this is what I also see: We have an opportunity – no, a responsibility- to look at the type of support these women are getting. Is it truly evidence-based? Or is it based on dogma; on the belief that “95% of breastfeeding problems are reversible”? (By the way, I am super curious about the research backing up that claim.) Are the individuals giving the support truly listening to the mothers, examining them, considering the delicate balance of hormones necessary for lactation, or the effect of emotional or physical trauma around birth on a woman’s ability to withstand latching pain or her infant’s cries? Is there nuance? Are these mothers being seen, or are they being treated as uniform breasts, needing to be “handled” so that they can fulfill their duty of providing exclusive breastmilk for 6 months?

I’m not knocking a study that advocates for more support for moms. I simply want us to open up the discussion, rather than going in circles, with the same researchers and the same experts telling us the same things – if mothers only knew better. If they could only be taught to recognize their babies’ cues. If they would only listen to us. 

I think it’s time they listened to us, instead. Which brings me to what I’d really like to see from this study: a follow-up where they ask the women who “failed” to meet breastfeeding recommendations what they think would have helped them reach their goals. Because without that piece, I really don’t think we can get very far.

 

Let’s talk about SES, baby: a critique of three studies getting far too much attention in the news this week

If I didn’t hate conspiracy theories so much, I’d start this post out reminding you that a recent systematic review from the World Health Organization (WHO) had the nerve to be realistic about the health benefits of breastfeeding. The results shouldn’t have been surprising to any of you who read this blog regularly; basically, they found that most infant feeding studies show modest benefits to breastfeeding, and are bogged down by research pitfalls like endless confounding factors, self-reported data marred by poor recall, and the impossibility of conducting the double blind, randomized, controlled experiments we need to make absolutely sure we aren’t confusing causation with correlation. But considering that this analysis came from WHO, an organization that has been fundamental in the popularization of breastfeeding advocacy and research, it must have ruffled a lot of feathers.

So, one could argue that the media push of three rather sloppy studies is simply a flurry of flapping wings, trying to distract from the presumably disappointing WHO statement. But one won’t, because one gets seriously annoyed when one hears people engaging in similar conspiracy theories about Big Formula. Although one could also argue that viewing these studies as a ploy would be a less offensive interpretation than assuming people actually think they are worth spreading around. One is also very exhausted after a 4-am wake-up from one’s two-year-old and one is discussing oneself in a grammatically incorrect, rather disturbing third-person. Let’s move on, shall one?

The three studies include one about metabolic function and gut microbiome; one about maternal deaths attributed to not breastfeeding; and one about child cognitive function. We’ll start with the the metabolic/gut microbe study, Early Diet Impacts Infant Rhesus Gut Microbiome, Immunity, and Metabolism, because it involves rhesus monkeys and they are just so damn adorable.

For this study, the researchers fed rhesus monkeys either breastmilk or infant formula, and concluded that “metabolic and gut microbiome development of formula-fed infants is different from breast-fed infants and that the choice of infant feeding may hold future health consequences”. I don’t think it’s even worth explaining what the implications of this finding are in humans, because, well, these were monkeys. They were presumably fed monkey breastmilk and human infant formula, or human breastmilk and monkey formula, or some other combination of the two. But no matter what, they were comparing apples to oranges. Or humans to monkeys, as the case may be. True, rhesus monkeys are considered a great stand-in for human subjects, but if monkey milk was that similar to human milk, I expect we’d see the WHO hierarchy of infant feeding change to include “rhesus money milk” after human donor milk, ahead of formula. (I wonder if anyone has ever looked into this, come to think of it… ) To quote some of my favorite lactivist memes, cow’s milk is for cow babies. Human milk is for human babies. Therefore, wouldn’t feeding monkeys either human milk or formula made to emulate human (as opposed to monkey) milk confuse the results?

Consensus: not worth worrying about unless you are super concerned about the metabolic and gut function of rhesus monkeys being used as lab rats. (If you are, contact your local animal right’s group, because frankly I think using innocent animals for this sort of “research” is on par with using them to test mascara.)

Next up, we have a study from the same researcher who brought you the infamous “Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding” study which was the direct cause of a permanent dent in the master bedroom wall of our old house that bears an uncanny resemblance to the shape of my forehead. This new study, Cost Analysis of Maternal Disease Associated With Suboptimal Breastfeeding, uses the same type of statistical model as its ugly stepsister and reports:

If observed associations between breastfeeding duration and maternal health are causal, we estimate that current breastfeeding rates result in 4,981 excess cases of breast cancer, 53,847 cases of hypertension, and 13,946 cases of myocardial infarction compared with a cohort of 1.88 million U.S. women who optimally breastfed. Using a 3% discount rate, suboptimal breastfeeding incurs a total of $17.4 billion in cost to society resulting from premature death $733.7 million in direct costs, and $126.1 million indirect morbidity costs.

All you need to know about this study is in the abstract (something I never thought I’d hear myself say). This is not a study, but an elaborate guesstimate, based on “modeling cases” of specific diseases the authors believe to be caused by not breastfeeding “using literature on associations between lactation and maternal health”.

Consensus: Not worth worrying about, unless you are taking economics and want to challenge yourself by figuring out how they came to their conclusions, as I expect it would be an interesting exercise. See how I’m looking out for your cognitive development? Which is a great segue to our last study of note…

Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study, by Deoni et al, which claims to:

…(P)rovide new insight into the earliest developmental advantages associated with breastfeeding, and support the hypothesis that breast milk constituents promote healthy neural growth and white matter development.

 

Here, the researchers performed MRIs on a bunch of babies and toddlers who had been breastfed, formula fed, and combo-fed, and found that the exclusively breastfed kids showed more white matter in their brains, as well as a few other differences in brain composition that suggested enhanced cognitive ability. The study is being applauded for doing two important things: showing the advantage of breastmilk on the human brain without having to rely on IQ tests and performance assessments, and for (supposedly) controlling for the ultimate confounding factor of socioeconomic status, or SES. This is because all of the babies they used were born full-term, healthy, and to mothers in the same socioeconomic group, based on the Hollingshead Social Status Index.

Ideally, this would lead people like me to throw up the white flag, as we can’t start arguing that maternal education or income has anything to do with the benefits observed in breastfed babies. If all the mothers were of the same social status, and they controlled for health issues in the babies (which they did) then the breastmilk has to be what’s influencing the results, right?

The trouble is, in this case, the researchers failed to control for what is, arguably, the most important factor of all – maternal and paternal IQ. They try to explain this away, stating that “(w)hile maternal IQ was not specifically measured, the combination of education and SES was believed to provide an adequate alternative.” Now, it could be my sleep-deprived brain (speaking of white matter, I bet if I had an MRI right now the image would look like swiss cheese) but doesn’t this seem rather obtuse for people smart enough to be conducting neurological studies? Having a superior education does not mean that your IQ is high, and if you’re talking about wealth in the same breath, the reality can be even trickier. Enough money can buy you an pretty impressive education – followed by a high-status job. There are extremely smart mechanics and extremely average CEOs. Status begets status, and IQ may beget IQ, but the two don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

This is a long way of saying that maternal SES (speaking of which – it really twists my knickers that none of these child cognitive studies ever mention the dad’s role. What about paternal IQ? Paternal SES? Paternal involvement?), while undeniably important when measuring things like access to healthcare, is not an accurate assessment of the quality of the child’s early learning and home environment,  or his/her genetics – two important pieces in the intellectual development puzzle. A recent study using similar techniques as the one in question discovered that “the more mental stimulation child gets around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be in the decades ahead.” Considering that the Deoni study did not even control for childcare – i.e., whether the child was primarily in daycare, with an in-home but non-parental caregiver, or with a parent (mother or father) – how can we possibly know if their environment had any effect? Women in the U.S. who choose to/are able to exclusively breastfeed for a lengthy amount of time – something that often requires a physical, emotional and in many cases professional/financial burden – might also be more willing to invest in their children in other ways that can affect early learning. Not to mention that EBF women are more likely to be full-time caregivers to their babies - the elephant in the room, especially for a working mom like me who has made a decision to combine career and family. True, I don’t want to hear that staying home with your babies gives them cognitive advantages (and I also think there are plenty of ways to skin a cat or however that horrible saying goes, and there are advantages to having a mother who is professionally fulfilled and satisfied, also) but I also think it’s subliminally sexist not to talk about this- because it certainly doesn’t have to be the woman who stays home. Anyway, I digress… but the point is, this study doesn’t control for what it needed to control for.

Consensus: Given the fact that they didn’t control for much besides health and SES, I don’t think this study “proves” or even “suggests” anything important, except that the people studying these brain scans might want to assess their own critical thinking skills. I wonder if that can be seen on an MRI?

 

Study says: Breastfeeding problems aren’t serious. And are probably your fault, anyway.

One of the most interesting interviews I did in my research for Bottled Up was with a physician who had studied breastfeeding-related neonatal hypernatremia (severe dehydration leading to electrolyte imbalance). We discussed the fact that these days, this condition is typically caught early and can be treated successfully. But the doctor also cautioned that while the prognosis wasn’t usually dire in terms of long-term health (thanks to modern medicine), we shouldn’t forget about the emotional and financial effects on the parents. He worried about a first time mom, trying to do the best for her child, who ends up seeing that baby hospitalized – sometimes for weeks- due to what she might perceive as her own failure to nourish him adequately.

I’ve been thinking about this interview since I read several articles yesterday, detailing a new study about the same condition. According to the Guardian (“Breastfeeding problems rarely lead to serious illness, study says“), a new paper on neonatal hypernatraemia found that “Very few babies become dehydrated and seriously ill because they are not getting enough milk from breastfeeding…Dr Sam Oddie and colleagues found only 62 cases from May 2009 to June 2010, a prevalence of seven in every 100,000 live births… the babies were admitted to hospital, mostly because of weight loss, and some were intravenously fed…However, all were discharged within two days to two weeks having gained weight and none had long-term damage.”

Seem like good news, right? Put on the Def Leopard, because we’re about to start headbanging.

Source: http://www.yaindie.com/2012/12/banging-your-head-against-wall-is-it.html

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #1: 

Okay. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but having a 2-week-old newborn in the hospital hooked up to an IV for a week or two isn’t considered serious? And as for long-term effects – these babies were born between 2009-2010. The study is not available online, so I don’t know what the details are in terms of how the researchers followed up with the subjects… but considering studies on breastfeeding and intelligence have tested kids at the age of 8, I think one could fairly say the jury is still out on this sample of 4 and 5-year-old kids. And how were they assessed in terms of long-term effects? Psychological? Emotional? Physical?

With all the focus on mother-child interaction in the first days, and the effect of fatty acids on brain development, the superiority of breastmilk in the first weeks… doesn’t it seem a little ironic that we’re so quick to dismiss a condition which a) separates parents from babies through NICU stays and b) starves/dehydrates a child in those same “fundamental” weeks?

I understand that we’re talking small numbers here – 7 in every 100, 000 is admittedly a reassuring statistic. But while we’re talking about that figure… what exactly does it mean?

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #2:

First, without access to the study, I can’t tell you if this statistic means 7 in 100,000 of ALL LIVE BIRTHS – meaning EBF, formula-fed and mixed-fed infants, inclusive. The UK has lower breastfeeding rates than many countries, so if this was the number of babies in all live births, it doesn’t mean anything substantial. What we need to know is the number of babies admitted who were exclusively breastfed before we can start making statements about breastfeeding, milk supply, and what needs to happen to avoid this risk.

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #3: 

Even if this study did look only at EBF babies, there are major limitations in what we can fairly assess from the data.  We can’t know how many women can adequately produce milk so that their babies aren’t at risk, because most people would supplement before it got to the point of hospitalization. What the researchers did discover is that the babies hospitalized could nearly all breastfeed successfully:

Almost every baby is capable of breastfeeding, Oddie said. “In only a few cases were there special features of the baby that made it likely that there would be a severe feeding problem. [One of the babies, for instance, was found to have a cleft palate.] Normally all babies can get established with breastfeeding with the right support.”

Again, I’m a little confused. If there were only a few cases of this condition, what exactly is a “few” of a few? Of the seven babies hospitalized in a group of 100,000, does that mean one of them had a “special feature” which created a feeding problem? Was it a statistically significant number?

Then, the Deputy Manager of UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative weighed in:

Anne Woods, deputy programme manager for Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative (BFI)…said the number of babies who could not feed was negligible and only a very small percentage – about 1% – of women would struggle to make enough milk. “The numbers who breastfeed in this country do not reflect the numbers who could breastfeed if they had effective support,” she said.

Where there are problems, she added, “it fundamentally boils down to the fact that the baby is not attached to the breast effectively. The whole of the baby’s mouth has to make contact and draw the breast tissue into the mouth.”

But because we have a bottle-feeding culture in the UK, she said, some women do not realise this and “try to bottle-feed with their breast”, so the baby takes only the nipple and does not get enough milk.

The other problem is when babies do not feed often enough. After a difficult labour or pain relief, the baby may be sleepy. There is also an expectation she said, that a baby will feed and then sleep.

Ah, right. It’s the mom’s fault. Who cares that this study proves – hell, even suggests – nothing about the true incidence of physiological lactation failure. The researchers are talking about the baby’s ability to feed, not the mother’s ability to produce milk. That doesn’t stop Anne Woods from hurling the 1% (the lowest number bandied about regarding lactation failure, by the way – she could’ve at least given us a break and used the higher end of the oft-cited 1-5% assumption figure) statistic at moms who’re already feeling like failures for landing their babies in the hospital. And of course, the mom probably can’t be bothered to feed as frequently as needed – not that it’s entirely her fault, since the formula companies have convinced her that her breast is actually…wait for it… a bottle!

Banging-my-head-against-the-wall Problem #4: 

I know, I’m being snarky. And I do appreciate that the lead researcher of this study, Sam Oddie, emphasized the need for better breastfeeding management and support. I’m fully on board with that. But I’m also concerned about what Dr. Oddie was saying back in 2009, when he embarked on his study:

Dr Sam Oddie, a consultant in the neonatal unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary, who is leading the study, said: ‘Once we understand the scale of the problem we can work out what to do about it – how to spot it, and how to act on it. But as far as I’m concerned the answer isn’t more formula feeding, but increased support for breastfeeding from the outset in the form of counsellors.” (Marie Claire, 2009).

I don’t disagree with him, necessarily, but going in to a study on hypernatraemia with a strong desire to avoid formula supplementation – even if that ended up being the best course of treatment – implies a certain degree of bias.

One could argue that there’s no harm in a study like this making the news; it will bring attention to those experiencing early breastfeeding problems and perhaps make medical professionals take them more seriously. But as we’ve seen so many times, these studies have a way of creeping into the breastfeeding canon and being misused as “truth” to back up future claims. I can already see Dr. Oddie’s quotes as being taken out of context, being used as “proof” that “all babies can breastfeed” and that the risk of inadequate feeding isn’t all that serious (so there’s never a need to supplement, even if your formula-pushing pediatrician tells you that there is).

Still think I’m overreacting? Here are the headlines from the other two major news sources covering the study:

Most mothers who struggle to breastfeed WILL be providing enough milk for their babies, say experts (The Daily Mail)

Dehydration risks from breastfeeding are ‘negligible’, study finds (The Telegraph)

Would you like me to move over and make a little space for you on the wall? Come on over. Bring some Metallica, and wear a helmet.

 

Read more about neonatal hypernatraemia:

http://fn.bmj.com/content/87/3/F158.full http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/116/3/e343.full

 

 

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