Breastfeeding: “A netherworld of drivel”

And that’s from a lactation consultant.

I’ve  just watched a lecture which Dr Joan Wolf, author of a book called “Is Breast Best?”, gave at Kent University last month.

She summoned the haters en masse when she challenged the “breast is best” doctrine but she said that even the professional BF brigade tell her that breastfeeding is being given credit for all sorts of things that it cannot possibly live up to.

For example some research has claimed breastfeeding decreases the likelihood of bedwetting teenagers, she said, it also apparently increases “social mobility” (whatever that is) and reduces the risk of parental child abuse. Oh – and makes you more likely to win the lottery*

Let’s just think about that for a second. How on earth does that work?

Dr Wolf argues – and this actually blew my mind – that none of the research that is done into the effects of infant feeding includes randomised trials, for ethical reasons. So while in other clinical trials you have a group, half of whom get, say, real paracetamol, and half of whom get the sugar pill and neither knows which – breastfeeding/formula feeding trials are always carried out by a self-selected group.

You can understand why – but in most other areas of science, this seriously fucks with the credibility of the research itself. To go back to the paracetamol analogy, if you have someone who swears by Lemsip and they are having, um, Lemsip, they are of course more likely to report its benefits.

“Selection bias is a serious problem,” said Dr Wolf.

“If you have one study that’s seriously flawed having 10 or 100 similar studies doesn’t make that go away. Bias times 12 is still bias.”

She claims it’s an “open secret” among scientists that they are unable to “control variables” in these cases and this work is always flawed as a result – it’s hidden away in the “discussion” sections of research papers that nobody ever bothers reading, though.

It’s quite a job, she argues, to separate the actual act of breastfeeding from other behaviour by the parents as the single factor in a particular outcome.

So for example, breastfeeding mothers are perhaps more likely to be at home, and therefore not exposing themselves and their infants to as many bacteria… they may also be going to the supermarket in the day when it is quieter and not packed with the after-work crowd and all their coughs and splutters… how do we know it’s not that which is keeping their babies healthy?

Her argument is that perhaps women who *choose* to breastfeed (and remember they are the self-selecting research group) generally tend to be more conscious of health issues. A study carried out of high school students found that those who brushed their teeth regularly were less likely to be obese. Not because of the actual tooth brushing itself, but because it tended to symbolise more dedication to other health choices.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I would like to think I’m a pretty health conscious person – obviously I would say that. Then again, I did also choose to breastfeed – it just turned out that breastfeeding did not choose me.

By the way, she also said the pressure put on women to breastfeed can have catastrophic effects on their physical and mental health especially if they either struggle or end up being unable to do it – and there are other studies out there which indicate that infants cared for by parents who are depressed or stressed are more prone to develop a whole range of disorders as a result.

So forgive the pun but is there a chance we’re pouring the baby out of the bathwater here? Forcing some mothers down a path that may well actually cause further harm?

Food for thought, isn’t it.

*I may have made that bit up

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One thought on “Breastfeeding: “A netherworld of drivel”

  1. “By the way, she also said the pressure put on women to breastfeed can have catastrophic effects on their physical and mental health especially if they either struggle or end up being unable to do it – and there are other studies out there which indicate that infants cared for by parents who are depressed or stressed are more prone to develop a whole range of disorders as a result.”

    Exactly. I can’t understand the constant bullying about breast feeding when there are much more important factors to worry about!

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