Breastfeeding benefits overstated?

I watched a friend of mine breastfeeding her baby recently and couldn’t help feeling a bit of nostalgia – and maybe jealousy. OK, that sounds a little lurker McCreeperson, but watching her took me back to the days of breastfeeding my own children.

I loved breastfeeding, even though it was torture on my body for the first few weeks. Fourteen months later, I had to wean my children and myself off the joy of breastfeeding. There is just something about being able to provide for your child in a very direct way that makes you feel like whatever else you’re doing wrong, in that quiet moment with your baby in your arms, everything is going to be OK.

I also strongly believe in the health and cognitive benefits of breastfeeding. So I was intrigued by a study to come out in the journal Social Science & Medicine recently that says those benefits have been largely overstated throughout the years.

When researchers looked at the longitudinal data they found breastfed babies had better outcomes in hyperactivity, math skills, reading, vocabulary, scholastic competence and obesity. However, when the study looked only at siblings where one child was breastfed and the other was not, the difference between the two was not statistically significant.

Researchers say the results reinforce that moms with higher levels of education, higher income and more time tend to breastfeed more. Those qualities may have more to do with the positive outcomes in breastfeeding than anything found in the milk itself.

Essentially, what I got out of this study is that breast milk may not be a magic elixir, but the pattern of parenting that often leads to breastfeeding may be the key.

A similar study out of BYU said the same thing recently, showing babies who are breastfed get a mental boost because because their mothers are more likely to read to them and pay attention to their emotional cues.

In all honesty, these studies give me hope. I cannot have any more biological children, though I hope to adopt. So while I can’t breastfeed that child, I am encouraged that he or she can still receive all the benefits I believe come from nursing. It just might take a little more conscious effort.

Nursing does force mothers to slow down. It forces us to take a moment, take a breath and hold our babies close as they nurse. But the real value there is the pattern – a pattern of sacrifice for our children, a pattern of taking quiet moments to talk and read and make eye contact, a pattern of touching and holding our children tight. Breast milk or formula – maybe it doesn’t matter – as long as the love is the same.

What do you think? Is the real benefit of breastfeeding in the milk or in the moments we give our children?


  1. Danny Chipman

    Glad to see comments are back!

    I was joking with a friend about this the other day. I’ve never been able to directly breastfeed, but I did the pumping deal with two of my three children (severe illness dried me up on the other one). I agree that it’s the nurturing attitude of the mother that most greatly contributes to children’s success later, not so much the milk, though that has been proven to have identifiable nutritional benefits.

    …except in my kids’ case. For some reason, the two breastfed ones are sick on a biweekly basis, and the formula-fed child is almost never sick. So much for all those helpful antibodies they were supposed to get. Apparently my family’s lousy genes trump breastmilk. Fortunately, the one healthy child took after her dad’s side and their iron-strong immune systems.

    Oh, well, at least I was able to save money not buying formula.

    • Erin Stewart

      Me too! The system had a little glitch with the comments but we are back on track now and I’m looking forward to everyone’s thoughts again!

  2. Patti

    I was not thrilled with breast feeding (swollen boobs, leaks, excusing myself when I didn’t want to do it in front of whoever was there, pain) but I loved providing something for my baby that no one else could, believing I was doing what was best for them, and the sweet, quiet time I had to just sit and enjoy my babies. I still loved that when I stopped breast feeding and spent that time with a bottle – so you get to keep the best part when you adopt!

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