How That Popular "Breastfeeding Is Overrated" Study Is Being Misunderstood
The Study In Question
If you are a parent, or friends with someone who is, it's likely you've seen (or at least heard about) the recent study that compares breastfed siblings with non-breastfed siblings, and finds no notable differences in their long-term health.
This study has popped up repeatedly on Facebook, Twitter, and parenting forums. It is usually shared by a mother who either had to, or simply chose to formula feed, and it is usually accompanied by a comment exhibiting relief or joy. It seems that those who could not breastfeed take solace in this study, and that is a good thing. There is far too much formula-related guilt in the mommy world.
With that said, the common consensus of "Breastfeeding has no long-term benefits!" is far too hasty and quite frankly, inaccurate.
Unfortunately, when these studies gain media attention, a vast majority of the public are not actually able to read the study itself. It's often a situation where someone would have to pay for a subscription to the journal that the article is published in, and let's be real: not many people are going to want to pay $30+ to read an article. So, the public is exposed to biases when the results are reported, and we are essentially at the whim of the reporter's interpretations.
Most of the articles covering this study boast that breastfeeding is overrated, and to an extent that is not untrue. However, it's a blanket statement, and one that is being misconstrued.
How It's Being Misunderstood
The study does suggest that short-term breastfeeding does not provide notable long-term benefits. You can see why it's an easy jump to saying "breastfeeding has no benefits". However, that is a very different and very exaggerated claim.
First, we must take into consideration the WHO's guidelines regarding breastfeeding. They say: "Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond." Then, take into consideration that the study looked at data from mothers who breastfeed an average of only 23 weeks, and did not differentiate between exclusive breastfeeding and any breastfeeding. Surely, a mother would say they were breastfeeding even if it were only for one feed a day.
It seems likely that the take-away message is not that there are no long-term benefits from breastfeeding, rather that the long-term benefits are related to amount and duration of breastfeeding. One could pretty confidently say that breastfeeding once a day for three weeks won't provide substantial long-term benefits, but that doesn't contradict the WHO guidelines in any way.
The benefits of breastfeeding have not been overrated; they've been misunderstood.
The Motivation Behind Misunderstanding
A lot of the misunderstanding probably comes from being fed sensationalized headlines and bias from reporters who just want to claim something exciting. With all of the "Breast Is Best" swirling around, it certainly does sound like something groundbreaking when someone says it's actually not.
Given the difficulty in accessing the actual study, and the difficultly understanding it for those who haven't been trained to read scientific articles, many people rely heavily on these biased summaries.
People may embrace the exaggerated conclusion because it makes them feel better about their circumstances. Guilt surrounding infant feeding methods is incredibly common and shockingly strong. Some mothers have exhausted every option but been unable to breastfeed. Some mothers have given up in the midst of a growth spurt because the days were just too hard. And some mothers didn't give breastfeeding a second thought, they just gave a bottle and never looked back. Regardless of the reasons, the reminder that "breast is best" can be painful.
Claiming that breastfeeding is overrated might be easing that pain. It might take that feeling of failure away. People may want to cling to the distortion and wear it like a band-aid.
Do you believe the benefits of breastfeeding are overrated?
Why It's Important To Get It Right
As with anything, it's important to try to understand things fully and correctly. Sure, it might feel good to hear that breastfeeding isn't the noticeably superior choice as previously thought. But is it worth ignoring the whole story and the true implications just to feel a bit better?
Will the way someone chooses to feed their infant eclipse all other parenting choices? Certainly not. It is, however, and important decision. It's a decision which requires parents to be equipped with correct information and adequate support, and it is a decision that will potentially affect their child's health for a lifetime - contrary to what people think this study is suggesting.