Last week, 6ABC’s Erin O’Hearn reported on something that’s considered very controversial: the benefits of breast feeding. She starts her piece by saying some benefits are well-documented; for example, the fact that breast milk contains components that can help stave off ear and gastrointestinal infections has been widely proven. But she adds that other benefits – such as ensuring a higher IQ or lower weight – are not as well-documented. The premise of the story is that mothers who can’t breast-feed shouldn’t feel bad about it – there are a myriad of other factors that affect a child’s health.
I think the way O’Hearn reported the story was done very well. It was not a one-sided story; she cited recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. She also spoke with Deb Ferrarello, the director of Family Education and Lactation at Pennsylvania Hospital, who touted the benefits of breast-feeding.
To present the other side, she spoke with Katie DiSantis, a researcher from Temple who studied breastfeeding habits among mothers, and also Paul Lyons, a doctor at Temple Hospital who treats women after they’ve given birth. They both said that there are a number of other factors to consider when thinking about how smart a child will be, or how much he or she will weigh; there’s simply no magic bullet.
And it makes sense; O’Hearn cites research which has found that the number of babies who were breast-fed has gone up since the 70s; but so too has the number of obese children. If one were to assume that exclusively breast-feeding a child would lead to less obese children, this statistic would disprove that fact, wouldn’t it?
Instead, O’Hearn uses it to show that in terms of things like IQ and weight, there are simply too many external factors to consider to say whether or not breast milk would have an effect.
A number of scholarly reviewed papers would agree; such as the one from the International Journal of Obesity in 2004, which concluded: “Breast-feeding seems to have a small but consistent protective effect against obesity in children.” Seems to, not does. Or the one from the journal Pediatrics in May 2005, which said, “Initial breastfeeding protects against obesity in later life. However, a further review including large unpublished studies exploring the effect of confounding factors in more detail is needed.” In other words, further study would be needed to prove these findings, including looking at the effects of outside factors.
The results from studies looking for a link between breast feeding and intelligence also are suggestive, and call for more study, such as the one from the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, which stated: “Independent of a wide range of possible confounding factors, a significant positive association between duration of breastfeeding and intelligence was observed” Or the one from the journal Nutrition in 2007, which concluded that breastfeeding actually had nothing to do with IQ levels: “the apparent benefit of breast-feeding on cognitive function is most likely attributable to sociodemographic factors.”
O’Hearn took the road less traveled with this story and looked at the other side of it – the unpopular, yet growing, belief that maybe breast feeding isn’t the only option for mothers. That it’s ok if they can’t breast feed for the recommended amount of time, or at all, and that they’re not doing harm to their babies.