Rethinking the Benefits of Breastfeeding

Baby breastfeeding.

A new study challenges the long-held notion that ‘breast is best’ for infant health.

“Breast is best” has long been a mantra regarding newborn health. But a new study reveals that the link between breastfeeding and infant health may be less clear than we thought.

The findings, based on data from more than 1,000 participants in an infant feeding study designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, indicate that the infants of mothers who intended to breastfeed, but then used formula once the baby was born, had similar health outcomes to exclusively breastfed infants.

In other words, say researchers, the reported benefits of breastfeeding may not just be about the breast milk, but also about the type of mother who intends to breastfeed.

“What we found is that intending mothers had more information about nutrition and diet,” explains Jessica Su, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo and co-author of the study. “They more frequently consulted their physicians and had better access to information related to infant health than those moms who did not intend to breastfeed.”

Undue burden on mothers

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend exclusively breastfeeding a child for six months. It’s not simply an individual lifestyle choice, the message warns, but a matter of public health.

That’s a heavy load for mothers to bear. About a third of those who intend to breastfeed exclusively discover that they can’t carry through with that plan. Biological barriers are one reason. Another is the lack of social support for new parents, says Su, noting that the U.S. is the only developed country with no federal paid parental leave.

 “Given the strong breastfeeding recommendations and the realistic challenges that many mothers face,” says Su, “it’s important to more carefully quantify the trade-offs between breast milk and formula.”

To really give babies the best chance at a healthy start, the researchers say, policymakers and health professionals can promote better resources and support for mothers more generally.