Are Some Breast-Feeding Claims Overblown?

Mathematicians, moms question if every breast-feeding benefit claim holds water.

ByABC News
April 24, 2009, 7:22 PM

April 27, 2009— -- Think how popular a food would be if it could decrease ear infections, asthma, sudden death, cancer rates and allergies -- plus make people smarter to boot.

If people took every study ever done on the subject to heart, then breast milk might be that superhuman food.

But a mathematician's analysis of breast-feeding studies found some of them mathematically questionable, and her conclusions have touched off a debate on whether some of the purported health benefits are overblown.

The mathematician, Rebecca Goldin, director of research at STATS, a non-profit group designed to improve the quality of statistical information in the media, said in her review of studies, she really was only convinced of a few health benefits of breast-feeding for full-term healthy babies living in developed world.

"There's a very well-established case to say nursing reduces ear infections, reduces gastrointestinal problems and has a positive immune effect," said Goldin. "But I felt most of the other claims are really controversial."

Even some women who support breast-feeding and have breastfed are wondering about breast-feeding's health benefits.

"I just don't buy it. I'm not convinced it makes a huge amount of difference in the way children turn out nowadays," said Tess Stimson, a writer and journalist.

Although Stimson breastfed all three of her children for the health benefits and to bond with them, she said in retrospect she's not sure it made such a difference compared to neighbors and friends who didn't breast-feed.

"They didn't get any fewer colds than the other children at school, and I don't think they remember it and feel any closer to me because of it," she said.

Even the author of a recent breast-feeding and cardiovascular risk factors study conceded that the health benefits from breast-feeding can be overblown by the time they reach mother's ears, if moms are listening at all.

Last week, an article in Obstetrics and Gynecology found that breast-feeding can later reduce a woman's risk for heart disease and diabetes.

According to the April 21 study, women who lactated for two years during their lifetime had a 13 percent lower risk for high blood pressure and a 20 percent lower risk for high cholesterol than women who never breastfed.

Yet the study couldn't find a significant link between breast-feeding and actually being diagnosed with heart disease.

"Very few women are meeting goals put forward by major medical associations on breast-feeding, so whether it's being overblown or not the message is not getting to women such that they are following through on that," said Dr. Eleanor Schwarz, author of the recent study and assistant professor of medicine, epidemiology and obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

Indeed, the breast-feeding numbers may be lower than most people think. About 56 percent of mothers are breast-feeding their babies three days after delivery, according to Dr. Miriam Labbok, a physician, professor and director for the Carolina Global breast-feeding Institute.

Although doctors like Scharwz may think reaching bottle feeding mothers eclipses the concern about overblown health claims, not all moms agree.