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Breast milk benefits ‘overstated’ study headlines slammed

By Mark Astley+

05-Mar-2014
Last updated on 05-Mar-2014 at 22:02 GMT

Breast milk benefits ‘overstated’ study headlines slammed

Baby Milk Action (BMA) is among several breast milk advocates to criticize reporting of a study that suggests the benefits of breastfeeding on child health and wellbeing may be "overstated."

In a blog posted on its website, BMA, which works to strengthen controls on the marketing of breast milk substitutes, said that there are “many curious aspects” to the Ohio State University (OSU) study, but questioned “the way it is being reported.”

“The research looked at a set of historic data and found that overall breastfed children did significantly better than formula-fed children, but that is not the headline appearing around the world,” said Mike Brady, campaigns and networking coordinator at BMA.

The study compared 11 health and wellbeing outcomes, including body mass index (BMI), obesity, parental attachment, behavioral compliance, vocabulary recognition, and math ability, of three sample groups: 8,327 children, 7,319 siblings, and 1,773 discordant sibling pairs (children from 665 survey families in which at least one child was breastfed and at least one bottle-fed). 

Analysis of the between-family samples found that breastfeeding resulted in better outcomes than bottle-feeding in 10 of the 11 examined measures. Results from the examination of discordant sibling pairs, however, led researchers to “reconsider the notion that breastfeeding unequivocally results in improved health and wellbeing.”

Media outlets around the world, including DairyReporter.com, ran with the latter finding.  BMA was among a number to query this.

“The researchers highlight that in a subgroup no benefits were found from breastfeeding, but look closely: they compared a child who may have only been breastfed once with a sibling who had no breast milk at all and look at things like their maths ability and vocabulary years later,” said Brady.

“Finding little difference between these children, they concluded that factors such as their parent’s education have a bigger impact than how the children were fed. No kidding! Years of robust research on health outcomes is being cast aside for this?”

"Lost in the news coverage"

In a similar post on the Breastfeeding Medicine blog, Alison Stuebe and Eleanor Bimla Schwarz said that true findings of the study had been "lost in the news coverage."

“A recent analysis of breastfeeding’s effects on child health is making headlines that come of the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated," said the post.

“When they compared breastfed children with formula-fed children, they found that the breastfed kids were healthier and smarter, as many other studies have previously reported. However, they then looked at families in which only some of the children had been breastfed, and they found that whether or not siblings were breastfed did not significantly affect their health outcomes. The authors argue that this proves that a child’s family – not infant feeding – is what really determines long-term child health, and breastfeeding doesn't really matter.”

“The paper’s authors note they were interested in longer-term outcomes in childhood, but that’s been lost in the news coverage, which has effectively thrown out the breastfeeding mom and baby with the bath water," Stuebe and Schwarz said.

Maureen Minchin, author of the book Breastfeeding Matters, also weighed in on the study's findings.

She said: “No one disagrees with the Ohio group’s advocacy of better social structures to enable breastfeeding, but grossly underselling the risks of being fed artificially is not the way to ensure that happen!”

BSNA "welcomes scientific research"

DairyReporter.com approached the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) regarding the negative response to the reporting of the study.

The organisation, which represents the interests of infant formula manufacturers Danone Nutrition, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Nestlé Nutrition, said that it “welcomes scientific research which helps to develop our understanding of infant feeding and which ultimately benefits babies and their parents.”

“Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients and antibodies to help develop a baby’s immune system and that is one of the reasons why we believe that breastfeeding is best for babies. For babies that are not breastfed it is important that they continue to receive the correct nutrition and infant formula is recognised as the only safe alternative to breast milk," said the statement.

“Every mother or carer, no matter how they choose to feed, deserves balanced information and advice.”