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Science and the Benefits of Breast-Feeding: The Authors Respond to Critics
June 26, 2006
Dr. Rebecca Goldin

Director of Research, Statistical Assessment Service, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences, George Mason University
Dr. Emer Smyth
Research Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Dept of Pharmacology, Univ. of Pennsylvani)
Dr. Andrea Foulkes
Assistant Professor of Biostatistics, School of Public Health and Health Sciences, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst

We received many responses to our article criticizing the New York Times and the American Association of Paediatricians (AAP). Some attacked our credibility or dismissed us as unqualified. Some questioned the motives behind the article, wondering whether we were paid consultants for formula companies or guilt-ridden mothers who failed our children. Others assumed that we were staunch anti-breast milk fanatics.

For the record we are none of the above. We are three mothers of, collectively, seven healthy vibrant, smart and beautiful children ranging from eleven-months to six-years. Six of these children were breast-fed successfully and exclusively for varying amounts of time. All have had an assortment of ear infections, coughs and colds. Each of us returned to work within weeks or months of giving birth and each of us made feeding and daycare choices that were the best for our families.

Like most mothers, we each have personal stories, good and bad, about our experiences breastfeeding. But we did not author the article as mothers, or as advocates for or against breast-feeding. By far the more important information about us is that we authored this article as three professional full-time scientists with particular expertise in mathematics, statistics and biomedical research.

There is a dizzying array of information available on breast-feeding and its purported benefits. We chose to examine the information found on the AAP websites because that was the source of scientific evidence offered by the New York Times. Both the AAP and the NYT deserved the criticism: the former for its outdated analysis and poor scientific interpretation, and the latter for its unbalanced article.

We remind the responders that we do not contend with the fact that breast-feeding is a bad idea for only a small number of people. We also agree that low risk infections do appear to be reduced in breast-fed children. We also remind you that, thankfully, the vast majority of term infants do very well, whether they are breast or formula fed. Our interest is not in advocating against breast-feeding but advocating against the misuse and misinterpretation of science.

Risk-benefit analysis is a part of everything we do. The epidemiological evidence clearly associates drinking one to two alcoholic beverages per day as beneficial for heart disease across a population. Does this mean that we should advocate that every person should consume one to two drinks per day. Of course not, that’s an individual’s decision. If we are to truly do what is “best for baby,” infants and children should not travel in a car, whether in-utero or strapped in a car seat, because of the risk of death. Should we stop pregnant women and women with children driving their cars? That’s untenable in our modern world but such a change across the population would save the lives of more infants than a shift in feeding practices to breast-feeding only. Balanced and rational perspective, not scare-mongering, is what this debate needs.