New Study Says Breastfeeding Benefits Are ‘Overrated': What Do You Think?

Photo: Mirror.Co UK Photo: Mirror.Co UK

Have you heard that the benefits of breastfeeding baby may not actually be “benefits” at all? Researchers from Ohio State University led by Cynthia Colen, the assistant professor of sociology, found that when siblings raised in the same family were fed differently (meaning one was breastfed, the other wasn’t), the long-term health results were virtually the same.

For her research, Colen and her team analyzed data on 8,237 children (gathered through a national cohort following children between 1986 and 2010). They found after analyzing 1,773 pairs of siblings raised in the same family but fed differently as infants that there was virtually no differences in terms of BMI, obesity, hyperactivity, parental attachment and test scorse predicting academic achievement in vocabulary, reading, math and general intelligence between the ages 4 and 14.

Colen told Yahoo! Shine that she was interested in performing the study because she was curious how other factors played into the negative health benefits typically blamed on formula-feeding.” She said, “I do think a lot of the effects of breastfeeding have been overstated. African-American women breastfeed children much less than white women do, for example, and I thought, this has to be affecting the findings. But I didn’t expect the research to be this striking.” The researchers also looked at differences between children from different families to make sure that they were getting a clear view of breastfeeding “benefits.” Colen said, “We included that to show there was nothing funky about the study.” She felt that including this non-sibling information could help determine that differences between families who breastfed versus those who didn’t could be due to a number of external factors (socioeconomic status, eating habits later in life, pollution levels, etc). She added, “We know poorer kids have higher rates of obesity because their diets are worse. They are more likely to eat processed food; they are more likely to eat fast food; they are more likely to live in ‘food deserts’ [neighborhoods without good grocery options] and in places where they can’t get out and exercise as much.”

The only difference the Ohio State research team did find was when it came to asthma. They noted that more breastfed babies were likely to develop the condition that formula-fed babies.

Overall, Colen says the study is important because it takes into question what women are expected to do versus what they’re able to — and how that shapes the conversation. She said, “I wanted to address the discourse out there of what women were expected to do. We need to take a much more careful look at what happens past that first year of life and understand that breastfeeding might be very difficult, even untenable, for certain groups of women. Rather than placing the blame at their feet, let’s be more realistic about what breastfeeding does and doesn’t do.”

However, in the face of all this new research, experts (like the AAP and WHO) still agree that breast milk is one of the greatest gifts you can give your baby. It’s brimming with nutrients and antibodies that boost your newborn’s immunity, aid digestion and promote brain development. An added bonus: Breastfeeding burns calories like crazy, helping you lose those pregnancy pounds faster. And it reduces your lifetime risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer and postmenopausal osteoporosis. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends breastfeeding for the first year, and exclusively for the first six months. A mother’s milk contains the ideal nutrients, enzymes and antibodies for baby. Breastfed babies are less likely to have diarrhea, ear infections, respiratory illness, allergies, stomach bugs and colds. Plus, nursing decreases future risk of obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, childhood leukemia and other forms of cancer. And, it’s a great way to bond with baby. Need more? Studies link breastfeeding to higher IQs.

There are perks for you, too. Six months of formula will set you back about $500… breast milk, not a penny. It’s always available, requires no preparation, and comes out at the perfect temperature. Worried about losing the pregnancy pounds? Yep, breastfeeding will help. It’s also been linked to decreased breast and uterine cancer and osteoporosis rates, helps you heal more quickly down below, and works (not perfectly!) as birth control. At the hospital, a lactation consultant can help you get comfortable with the nursing process. Your local La Leche League also offers support.

We asked our moms to weigh-in on the “debate” and here’s what they had to say:

“I breastfeed exclusively, and this study isn’t going to change that. I feel breast milk is most natural and the safest food for my baby. The study didn’t cover some of the reasons I breastfeed, including the antibodies it passes to my baby to keep him healthy right now (as opposed to long term) and that it’s said to help prevent some cancers in mom and baby. It helps me feel connected to my baby — which is important to me as a working mom. Plus, it’s free!” – Elena M.*

“I tried breastfeeding my first, and after two weeks of us both crying during every session and trying every seemingly barbaric contraption and pump out there, I ‘gave up’ and went to bottle feeding my son. I wish now, looking back, I wasn’t so hard on myself for it. Bottle-feeding gave me the benefit of sharing feeding duties during a time I struggled with symptoms of postpartum depression. While I think breast milk would have alleviated some of his colic problems with digestion, he started reading at three, and is rarely sick, so I don’t think formula had any long term negative effect on him.

I gave breastfeeding a try with my second, and with the help of a lactation consultant, I was able to breastfeed her until I decided to wean at six months old. I got to experience the intimacy that develops between mother and baby feeding baby this way, and that was really special. On the other hand, I was stressed about producing enough, what I was eating, and I rarely got a break. Her tummy seemed to be more at ease, and she was a better sleeper, but I couldn’t say for sure if it was because I breastfed. I was also a more calm parent and not struggling with depression as I was the first.” — Shannon G.

*Some names have been changed.

We want to hear from you: Are the breastfeeding “benefits” worth it?

Plus, more from The Bump:

Breastfeeding 101

Top 10 Reasons to Breastfeed

4 Breastfeeding Myths — Busted!