Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Subtle Truths About Breastfeeding
by Elizabeth Bauchner

Recently, a press release expounding the virtues of breast milk came to my attention. According to the press release, "a recent study suggests that early exposure to breast milk may determine how the body metabolizes fat later in life. And those who are breast fed are better able to process fat, which in turn lowers overall cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of heart disease."

Sounds good, doesn't it? Unfortunately, it isn't true.

In a mind-boggling revelation, Diane Weissinger, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), pointed out to me that because breastfeeding is the biological norm, it doesn't actually do anything fancier than allow for normal growth and development. Diane tells me that, "the breast fed baby simply grows into an adult whose cholesterol level is normal for his circumstances and diet. In contrast, formula-feeding results in abnormally high adult cholesterol levels."

If the press release had been written accurately, it would read, "a recent study suggests that early exposure to formula may interfere with how the body metabolizes fat later in life. And those who are formula-fed are less able to process fat, which in turn raises overall cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart disease."

Interestingly, although breast-feeding is the biological norm, it's extremely rare for researchers and scientists to use it as such. As well-intentioned as they may be, they tend to use the formula-fed baby as the biological norm, thereby making the breast-fed baby something different.

Better, yes, but different.

Why don't researchers use breast- feeding as the biological norm? According to Diane, in every other health issue the biological norm is used as the research norm. Take smokers, for example, while it's not unheard of to see an anti-smoking campaign tell us that non-smokers are healthier, it's more common to read about the dangers of smoking. We see public service announcements and press releases that read, "smoking can cause lung cancer," not "non-smokers have healthier lungs."

Even if researchers occasionally use breast-feeding as the biological norm, why do they couch their studies in the terms they use? Perhaps they are trying to encourage breastfeeding but don't want to alienate bottle-feeding parents. Or perhaps they are afraid of making bottle-feeding parents feel guilty (and guilt, by the way, is a whole other column). I certainly believe it's important to use tact, but don't parents deserve to know the facts about the health risks of formula?

When I weaned my first daughter to a bottle at two months of age, she became sick all the time. She must have had ten serious ear infections by the time she was eighteen-months-old. Most of the literature available on the topic tells me that breastfed babies are healthier and have fewer ear infections.

I would have rather heard that formula-fed babies are sick more often and prone to ear infections. It may just be semantics but if I had known the health risks of formula rather than the health benefits of breastfeeding, I might have worked a bit harder at nursing my daughter longer.

Another interesting tidbit of information is that the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding as the number one infant feeding method. Can you guess what number two is? Nope, it's not formula, it's the mother's own expressed milk given to her baby some other way. And number three? Still not formula. It's donated breast milk from another mother.

Formula is the World Health Organization's fourth choice for feeding a baby, only after all attempts at giving the baby human milk have failed. That's not because human milk is better; it's because formula is worse.

There. I said it. Formula is worse than breast milk. We all know that, in a way, but what we know is that breast milk is better than formula. We don't see the health risks of formula because they are not detailed in press releases of scientific studies. But the next time you see a press release detailing another virtue of breast milk, turn the words around and read it differently. You may be surprised by what you see.
Elizabeth Bauchner lives in Ithaca, NY with her husband and three children. Her column, "Mothering Matters", is published weekly in the Ithaca Journal.