Breast Not Best? Study Causes Controversy

16 January 2011

newstudy

The big news this weekend is the controversial new study on weaning that produced headlines such as Breast is not best, Exclusively breast-feeding for six months 'causes allergies'', and 'Mother's milk 'may do more harm than good'',which is, of course, not what the study was saying, exactly.

The researchers made it very clear that breastfeeding is best yet they found that in developed countries, babies may need more than just breastmilk and could lack in iron (which has been found to be due to clamping the umbilical cord too soon.)

There has been a massive backlash against this from all sides. What with Analytical Armadillo listing the errors in the report, along with studies that counter many of the points – and the fact that three of the researchers have declared ties with the baby food industry - while on the other end of the scale, Barbara Ellen from the Guardian is saying breastfeeders need to take a step back from their “Mafia” tactics due to all this 'evidence'.

Ironically, when you see how both breast and formula feeders have had plenty to say on the study, it, for once, isn't actually about breast vs bottle, but is simply about weaning on to solids rather than off of milk, since being on solids does not have to be at the exclusion of milk feeds as most mothers will attest.

UNICEF and the NHS still believe that solids should not be introduced before six months, and definitely no earlier than four months, since the digestive system is not ready for it. The fear in lowering the limit to four months is that parents will then introduce solids at an even earlier age, when there is a wealth of evidence about the problems this can cause a child.

Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths wrote a very interesting article where she discussed the media's involvement in this study:

The important point is this: the media created the most sensationalist headlines they possibly could in order to sell papers and increase viewing figures. They bore NO consideration for the true health realities of what they were saying.

What do you think? Are these just sensationalist headlines, fanning flames in an already contentious war or is there merit to the study?

TOPICS:   News and Recalls

5 comments

  • Theo C.
    There are two key point/counterpoints in this situation. One, the paper you cite is that a malnourished mother could malnourish their baby if they exclusively breastfeed and so there may be circumstances where the baby will benefit from weaning earlier than 6 months to ensure proper nutrition. Two, an original paper saying that mothers should breastfeed exclusively (ie not wean) until 6 months which was predicated on developing countries with poor food hygiene where the ability to feed babies sufficiently nutritious and safely prepared food was heavily compromised. The danger it perceived in early weaning was in those situations, not as a general point. Arguably, the NHS picked up on this and recommended it be applied in the UK for the same reason it recommends a zero-alcohol in pregnancy approach - ie that any grey area in its message will be picked up on by some people and exploited. By telling everyone that you MUST NOT drink alcohol when pregnant and MUST NOT wean your child before 6 months, the NHS avoids appearing to sanction women who binge drink through pregnancy (because they do not understand alcohol units) and who start feeding their babies chips and burgers at 6 weeks (or whatever) because they do not understand how babies' digestion develops. If we spend our lives constantly in fear of what parents may do if we let them apply common sense, all we end up doing is removing common sense in favour of draconian one-size-fits all rules that help nobody. I'm a parent of 4 (aged between 7 months and 9 years). Two of my children were almost entirely breastfed until they reached 6 months and it suited them. The other two were larger children and their appetites simply could not be sustained through breastmilk alone (they were feeding hourly, night and day by 4-5 months) and so weaned earlier. The idea that we create a culture where it is perceived as too hard to educate people properly and apply their common sense to their own choices and others' choices is saddening. Who do we help by trying to pretend the world is black and white - wrong or right? Equally, sensationalism of the type you cite is utterly absurd and frankly I would hope that the Daily Mail get reported to Ofcom for clearly misrepresenting the research. From those headlines you cite in your article, I think we must be thankful that the Daily Mail only said that breastfeeding causes allergies, rather than its usual attempt to categorise the world in to things that cause cancer and things that cure cancer (frivolous point!)
  • Luschka O.
    Theo, I absolutely agree with you that one size definitely does not fit all. I guess that's why they are guidelines, and not hard and fast laws. It allows those who want to take responsibility for their own children the opportunity to do so. Something I am very conscious of, and was more so as a new mother, is how many mothers have a totally erroded self-confidence when it comes to mothering and seem incapable of making any choices and common sense decisions for their own children, and always need 'approval' or an 'ok' from someone else - one mother I know even making a health visitor appointment to see if it's okay that she wanted to change nappy brands. I guess, in a way, it IS too hard to educate the masses, but, as you say, this is a sad turnout for common sense. That DBM link above says something else that I think is sadly true with regard to the media's involvement in this: "The headlines and distorted reportage really have caused damage. Despite the fact that some newspapers will now print 'balance' pieces and perhaps even have to print retractions, they KNOW that the headline was worth it. It's the headlines that people remember."
  • Luschka O.
    P.S. Thanks for commenting :)
  • naomi
    i am a breast feeding support worker as well as a family support worker, i work with young mums and 'hard to reach' families. i recently attended a training course run by unicef that was amazing. i have 2 children 1 breastfed and 1 had a mix. i left the training feeling liberatede. it is all about choice and in an ideal world common sence would prevail BUT some people do still need advice no good health visitor/ midwife/ family support worker will dictate to any mother but armed with ALL the facts hopefully we are providing the mothers the opportunity to make an informed discission
  • Theo C.
    Luschka, Naomi I think you're both right about people needing advice. Everyone wants support, especially in a new situation. That's natural and sensible. Nothing will ever replace a caring and experienced network of friends and other support (experienced health workers, etc) and for those who don't have such a structure available, some big, broad brush-stroke guidance is probably better than nothing. I think that where we are now, though, is that a lot of the advice coming out of "official" places - or at least the way this ends up being reported in mainstream press - is presented so much to sound like rules (DO NOT drink, DO NOT wean before X) that - as you say - it undermines people's confidence. One ends up believing that one is wrong because you believe your child might need to be treated differently from how the great and all-knowing edict from On-High (be that the NHS or the Daily Mail) says they should be treated. And one's network of friends ends up spending time helping to untangle the knots that these reports cause and convincing you that your baby won't be born with 2 heads if you have a glass of wine, or it won't die if you feed it baby rice at 4.5 months etc. Arguably, there are also too many healthcare professionals who are too inexperienced or too afraid to soften the message of Government Advice to actually help new parents.

What do you think?

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