Campaigns slogans that say “Breast milk is best” make it hard for mothers not to feel guilty when they don’t breastfeed their babies.
However, findings in a controversial 2010 study tell us that breast milk is only marginally better than formula. Prof Sven Carlsen of The Norwegian University of Science and Technology said “These health differences are really not so significant in any event. When you look at the epidemiological studies and try to strip away the other factors, it is really hard to find any substantial benefits among children who were breastfed as babies.”
His study,which analyzed 50 other studies on breastfeeding, including the Belarus study on breastfeeding and health, which survey ore than 17 000 women and children, found no evidence that breastfeeding reduced the risk of asthma and allergies in children, which has been attributed to breastfeeding. The only benefit from breastfeeding supported by genuine evidence is a “small IQ advantage”. “But this needs to be confirmed in new, carefully planned and conducted studies, ” Dr Carlsen adds.
Hormones are a determinant
For mums who do want to breastfeed, Professor Carlsen states that it’s the hormone levels of the mother during pregnancy that will determine if she can breastfeed.
“Pregnant women who have higher levels of androgens (male hormones) breastfeed less,” says Professor Sven M. Carlsen.
For example, there is a clear link between testosterone and breastfeeding ability. In fact, until 1980, when more suitable drugs were introduced, testosterone was used to stop milk production in circumstances where it was desirable.
“Probably, this is a direct effect of hormones that simply limit nursing ability, by reducing milk production in the breast…this was one of the reasons that we wanted to investigate whether the effects attributed to mother’s milk really should be attributed to hormonal factors in pregnant women”, says Carlsen.
Do what makes you happy
Professor Carlsen added: “Basically a mother who finds she has difficulty shouldn’t feel guilty – it probably is just the way it is, and her baby will not suffer for being fed formula milk.
Carlsen adds that it is far worse for babies to have a tired, stressed-out mother with a guilty conscience, than to forgo breast milk. The health aspects of breastfeeding should be left out of political arguments, he says. “A mother should do what makes her happy.”
If true, the findings of this study gives a mother more freedom to decide on how to feed her baby without pressure from others or feelings of guilt.
That said, the study has been deemed as misleading by a number of policy makers and non-profit organizations looking to support breastfeeding mums. According to a US government review, babies who are not breastfed are twice as likely to develop ear infections, almost four times as likely to develop pneumonia, and twice as likely to suffer from diarrhea. Mothers who do not breastfeed face increased risks of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and breast and ovarian cancers.
WHO recommends to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life.