Bad Science: Breast Milk and Formula

Bad Science: Breast Milk and Formula

October 23, 2019 100 By William Morgan


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of SciShow.
[ ♪INTRO ]
If you’ve had a baby in the last couple
decades or so, you’ve probably been told
that “breast is best.”
That you should make sure your baby gets only
breast milk for the first six months of its life.
It’s a saying that has the ring of science
to it — breast milk has so many amazing
properties, it must be far superior to anything
else we can give our infants.
That includes commercial infant formula.
But a three-word phrase never paints the whole
picture.
So what’s the truth about breast milk and
infant formula?
As mammals, we’re adapted to naturally produce
a fluid that meets our offspring’s nutritional needs.
And our newborns can’t process solid food,
so they need to eat something liquid.
But what about when a newborn doesn’t have
access to breast milk?
Use of wet nurses, or people who breastfeed
other people’s babies, was common before
bottle feeding became a thing.
When there wasn’t another lactating person
available, caregivers turned to…other liquids.
Throughout recorded history, infants have
been given all kinds of breast milk alternatives,
including animal milks, softened bread, soups,
honey, and even wine.
All of which had the potential to make babies
sick, in part because it was hard to keep
feeding vessels clean enough to stave off
infection.
Not that commercial formulas were much better,
at least when they first started hitting the
market in the 19th century.
They didn’t contain nearly enough protein,
vitamins, and minerals.
Plus, improper storage often caused them to
spoil.
So most infants were still breastfed prior
to the 1930s.
But that began to change thanks to several
factors, including more aggressive marketing
from manufacturers of infant formula.
By 1929, the American Medical Association
formed a committee to oversee baby formula,
and a few years later, the government created
regulations to prevent formula companies from
hawking their product directly to consumers.
But they were allowed to solicit to physicians,
who would turn around and share glowing reviews
about formula with their patients.
In turn, breastfeeding rates dropped steadily
through the 1970s.
Breastfeeding also declined in economically
disadvantaged regions of the world.
Many people couldn’t afford enough formula
to feed their infants, so they diluted it.
And not all had access to clean water.
To make matters worse, some were illiterate
and couldn’t read the instructions to prepare
formula safely.
And though it’s hard to separate from other
factors that could have contributed to the
decline, many doctors and researchers blamed
aggressive advertising tactics.
As late as 1960s, people around the world
started to fall out of love with formula.
By 1991, the World Health Organization and
UNICEF launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital
Initiative, known as the BFHI.
Their goal was to help maternity wards support
breastfeeding, and thereby drive the overall
rate of breastfeeding up.
There are ten guidelines, which they call
the ten steps to successful breastfeeding,
that birthing facilities need to follow to
earn BFHI accreditation.
They include teaching parents how to breastfeed,
and making sure parents and infants have access
to breastfeeding support even after they leave
the hospital.
Breastfeeding rates have improved globally
ever since BFHI’s inception, and that’s
associated with healthier infants and even
fewer deaths.
That’s all great news, right?
Breastfeeding rates went up, and kids are
doing better because of it.
Breast is best.
The end.
Roll the credits!
Except as usual, the truth doesn’t boil
down to a simple slogan.
Breastfeeding really is linked to better health
outcomes.
The data pretty clearly show that, on the
whole, breastfed babies tend to fare better
than those who get formula.
Breastfed babies have lower incidence of childhood
obesity, and the longer they’re breastfed,
the less likely they are to become obese.
Or take diabetes.
Breastfeeding seems to protect against later
development of type 1 or type 2 diabetes in
babies, and against the development of type
2 diabetes in parents who breastfeed.
Necrotizing enterocolitis is another big one.
It’s a devastating disorder that leads to
tissue death in the bowels of premature infants,
and breast milk has been shown to protect
against it.
It doesn’t stop there.
Breastfeeding is also strongly associated
with a whole raft of other desirable outcomes,
including lower incidence of asthma, childhood
leukemia, ear infections, respiratory infections,
and sudden infant death syndrome.
Breastfed babies also seem to do better later
in childhood and even adulthood.
On the whole, they have better school performance
and possibly even higher salaries than those
who weren’t breastfed.
Taken together, all the research from government
agencies and medical journals over the past
few decades is pretty compelling.
But is it the actual material properties of
breast milk at work, or something else?
See, there’s a complicating factor that
goes with all that science on the benefits
of breast milk.
The vast majority of the data on long-term
infant feeding outcomes are observational.
That means that they’re from studies where
researchers watch what people do and take
notes on what happens next, rather than designing
a controlled experiment for them to participate
in.
Unlike the formula companies of yesteryear,
researchers are sticklers for ethics.
And there are ethical barriers to randomly
assigning one group of infants to receive
breast milk and the other to receive formula.
So instead of randomized controlled studies,
researchers who study the effects of breastfeeding
and formula feeding are comparing the babies
who happen to breastfeed with the babies who
happen to get formula.
And families that breastfeed tend to differ
in several important ways from families that
don’t.
For example, in a sample of Florida mothers
from 2013, those who breastfeed were more
likely to be married rather than single, to
have achieved higher levels of education,
to not smoke, and to have better access to
healthcare than their formula-feeding counterparts.
And in low and middle income countries, those
using breast milk substitutes may be forced
to prepare them with unsafe water.
And that’s not even a full list of differences.
As you can see, there are a lot of confounding
factors when it comes to infant feeding.
One of these is socioeconomic status.
U.S. data from 2013 show that 70% of college
graduates breastfed infants for at least 6
months, compared to just 38% of those who
hadn’t graduated from high school.
Similarly, of those living at 6 times the
poverty line, 70% were still breastfeeding
at 6 months, compared to just 38% of those
living below the poverty line.
In high-income areas, breastfeeding moms are
more likely to be health-conscious, and have
the time and resources to promote healthy
behaviors.
So it’s very tricky to control for other
factors when looking at the potential benefits
of breast milk.
One way that researchers have tried wrangle
these variables is to look at siblings.
Siblings are exposed to a lot of the same
socioeconomic factors, and often have the
same parents.
So if one was breastfed and one wasn’t,
they can be compared to one another a little
more directly, and some of those variables
are controlled for.
In 2014, U.S. researchers carried out a major
sibling study that compared feeding methods
for thousands of siblings born since the 1980s.
When comparing kids between the ages of 4
and 14 from different families, those who
were breastfed had lower incidence of obesity,
asthma, and hyperactivity, and higher math
and reading proficiency.
But when they compared those same measures
for siblings growing up in the same families,
the differences between breastfeeding and
formula feeding all but disappeared.
There has been one major randomized controlled
infant feeding study.
The Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention
Trial, or PROBIT, was carried out in Belarus
and published in 2001.
To avoid ethical fouls, researchers didn’t
assign some babies to receive breast milk
and others to receive formula.
Instead, they randomized over 17,000 mother-infant
pairs into two groups.
In one group, the BFHI model was used to encourage
breastfeeding.
The other group wasn’t given those guidelines.
As expected, the group that received encouragement
ended up with higher breastfeeding rates.
The researchers followed these kids into childhood
and adolescence and found that both groups
ended up with similar incidence of asthma
and allergies, no difference in behavioral
issues, similar weight and blood pressure,
and more.
So yeah, breast milk is pretty awesome.
But once you start to account for all the
other variables that can affect an infant’s
life, it becomes really clear that feeding
is not the only thing that affects an infant’s
future.
There’s one notable exception to all of
this — there’s strong evidence that breast
milk has a significant protective effect on
the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis
in premature and low birth weight newborns.
But outside of that?
There’s not actually enough evidence to
tell parents that they have to breastfeed
to ensure their kids will be healthy.
Despite how messy all of this is, the “breast
is best” adage still prevails in many circles.
Some researchers are starting to suggest that
certain BHFI guidelines, like a ban on pacifiers,
could be doing more harm than good.
Some of the guidelines provide great support
for new parents just learning to care for
their baby.
But others might be less great.
One of the most widespread breastfeeding recommendations,
related to BFHI’s step 6, is to breastfeed
exclusively for the first six months of life,
no other food or drink at all.
But that idea isn’t backed by science or
history.
Newborns have been fed milk alternatives throughout
history for lots of reasons, including their
parents not producing enough milk in the first
few days after birth.
New parents may be told that newborns who
nurse frequently will get enough milk — that
their bodies will produce as much as the infant
needs.
Except that’s just not true.
Up to an estimated 15% of people breastfeeding
don’t make enough milk.
In fact, in limited cases, dehydration can
actually arise as a complication of exclusive
breastfeeding when parents aren’t making
enough milk.
Nutritional deficiencies and failure to thrive
have been seen as well.
Supplementing frequent breastfeeding with
formula — or pumped or pasteurized donor
breast milk — can prevent excess weight
loss in infants.
In other words, a bit of formula can sometimes
be a big help.
In fact, there’s some evidence to show that
a little extra formula early on may help establish
breastfeeding long-term.
With all of the baggage that comes with the
conversation on how to feed our babies, one
thing’s clear: Breast milk is great.
But that doesn’t mean formula should be
framed as harmful, because the evidence isn’t
there.
Formula companies have definitely acted unethically
at certain points in the past.
And formula isn’t identical to breast milk.
But formulas these days are leagues above
those of yesteryear.
They’re highly regulated to contain as much
good, healthy nutrition as we can manage.
Formula still doesn’t mimic everything about
breast milk, including good bacteria and immune
proteins.
And these do confer certain benefits — like
especially helping protect against necrotizing
enterocolitis.
It’s just that the lack of these things
doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.
Breastfeeding and formula feeding come with
pros and cons, and those often vary from family
to family depending on resources, employment
status, and geographic location and lifestyle.
One important factor to consider is cost.
Yes, you don’t have to fork over cash money
for breast milk like you do with formula,
but breastfeeding is only free if a parent’s
time is worth nothing.
Bottom line: if you have the means to prepare
formula right, there’s no reason to fear
it.
This is ultimately of course a decision for
parents to make.
But we can tell you that the evidence says…formula
is fine.
Just remember to ask your doctor if you have
any concerns, and not strangers on the internet.
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[ ♪OUTRO ]