Monday, March 10th, 2014
A study that is making headlines across the media and in parenting blogs suggests that the long-term benefits attributed to breastfeeding–such as lower risks of obesity, asthma, and behavior disorders–are actually more a function of the good health and socioeconomic status of mothers who breastfeed, rather than developmental effects of the breast milk itself. More from The New York Times:
Researchers at Ohio State University compared 1,773 sibling pairs, one of whom had been breast-fed and one bottle-fed, on 11 measures of health and intellectual competency. The children ranged in age from 4 to 14 years.
The researchers recorded various health and behavioral outcomes in the sibling pairs, including body mass index, obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, reading comprehension, math ability and memory-based intelligence. The study, published online in Social Science & Medicine, found no statistically significant differences between the breast-fed and bottle-fed siblings on any of these measures.
By studying “discordant” siblings — one of whom had been breast-fed and the other not — the authors sought to minimize the possibility that racial, socioeconomic, educational or other differences between families could affect the results. Many earlier studies on breast-feeding failed to control for such factors, they say.
Campaigns to increase the rate of breast-feeding have been highly successful in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about three-quarters of American mothers now breast-feed, compared with less than two-thirds in 2000, and about 49 percent are still breast-feeding at six months, compared with 34 percent in 2000.
Yet despite this increase, researchers have consistently found large socioeconomic and racial disparities in breast-feeding rates. A C.D.C. survey in 2008 found that 75 percent of white infants and 59 percent of black infants were ever breast-fed, and in 2013, the agency reported that 47 percent of white babies but only 30 percent of black babies were still being breast-fed at 6 months. Compared with bottle-fed infants, breast-fed babies are more likely to be born into families with higher incomes, have parents with higher educational attainments, and live in safer neighborhoods with easier access to health care services.
Still, sibling studies such as this latest one do not solve all the problems of bias. “We were not able to control for everything that could affect what would make a mom breast-feed one child and not the other,” said the lead author, Cynthia G. Colen, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State. “But we did control for premature birth, birth order, the age of the mother, and whether she was working when she had one infant and not when she had the other.”
Geoff Der, a statistician at the University of Glasgow who has worked with the same data in previous studies, said that the findings in the present study were robust and the authors’ method for eliminating selection bias was powerful. He had reassuring words for women who do not or cannot breast-feed.
“In a society with a clean water supply and modern formulas,” he said, “a woman who isn’t able to breast-feed shouldn’t be feeling guilty, and the likelihood that there’s any harm to the baby is pretty slim.”
Image: Baby having a bottle, via Shutterstock
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Friday, March 7th, 2014
The SAT college entrance exam is undergoing a series of changes, one of which is that the essay portion, which was added in 2005, will become optional, with a separate score from the rest of the test. The Associated Press reports on these and other changes, which will take effect in the 2016 test:
The new SAT will continue to test reading, writing and math skills, with an emphasis on analysis. Scoring will be on a 1,600-point scale, with a separate score for the optional essay.
Students will have the option of taking the test on a computer.
One of the biggest changes is that the extra penalty for wrong answers, which discouraged guessing, will be eliminated. And some vocabulary words will be replaced with words such as ‘‘synthesis’’ and ‘‘empirical’’ that are used more widely in classrooms and in work settings.
‘‘By changing the exam’s focus, we change the learning and work the SAT invites. Today, many students who are terrified they will be tested on lots of SAT words have one recourse: flashcards,’’ Coleman said. ‘‘Every educator knows flashcards are not the best way to build real word knowledge, but when the SAT rolls around they become the royal road. Students stop reading and start flipping.’’
The essay will be changed in other ways, too. It will measure students’ ability to analyze and explain how an author builds an argument, instead of measuring the coherence of the writing but not the quality or accuracy of the reasoning. It will be up to school districts and colleges the students apply to as to whether the essay will be required.
Instead of testing a wide range of math concepts, the new exam will focus on a few areas, like algebra, deemed most needed for college and life afterward. A calculator will be allowed only on certain math questions, instead of on the entire math portion.
Image: Test answer sheet, via Shutterstock
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Wednesday, March 5th, 2014
Parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children–or who have decided against vaccination–are not likely to be swayed by awareness programs meant to educate parents about the importance of giving kids vaccines against preventible diseases like measles and mumps. The programs, according to new research published in the journal Pediatrics, can actually make parents express more reservations about vaccines. More from Reuters:
The study’s lead author told Reuters Health that the research is an extension of his work in political science that found it is difficult to correct people’s misinformation.
“We found political misinformation is often very difficult to correct and giving people the correct information can backfire,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
“We were interested in seeing if the messages public health agencies were putting out were effective,” he said.
Specifically, Nyhan and his colleagues examined public health campaigns about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Although national U.S. MMR vaccination rates are high, the researchers write in Pediatrics that there are states where the rate dips below 90 percent, which is a commonly used threshold for so-call herd immunity. Herd immunity is the point where high vaccination rates within a population may also offer protection to the unvaccinated.
They also write that maintaining high levels of MMR vaccination is important because of the increasing number of measles cases reported in the U.S. and recent outbreaks in the UK. Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can lead to death.
Another study published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers in the same journal found that vaccinating U.S. kids born in 2009 according to the routine immunization schedule will save about $70 billion and prevent over 40,000 early deaths and over 20 million cases of disease.
Image: Vaccine, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
Some infant sleep machines, which produce sounds that are intended to soothe babies to sleep, may, if set at their highest volumes, damage babies’ hearing, according to new research published in the journal Pediatrics. More from The New York Times:
Infant sleep machines emit white noise or nature sounds to drown out everyday disturbances to a baby’s sleep. The machines, sometimes embedded in cuddly stuffed animals, are popular gifts at baby showers and routinely recommended by parenting books and websites.
Some sleep experts advise parents to use these noisemakers all night, every night, to ensure the best rest for a newborn. Many parents say their babies become so used to the sounds of rainfall or birds that they will not nap without them.
Researchers at the University of Toronto evaluated 14 popular sleep machines at maximum volume and found they produced between 68.8 to 92.9 decibels at 30 centimeters, about the distance one might be placed from an infant’s head. Three exceeded 85 decibels, the workplace safety limit for adults on an eight-hour shift for accumulated exposure as determined by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. One machine was so loud that two hours of use would exceed workplace noise limits.
At 100 centimeters, all the machines tested were louder than the 50-decibel limit averaged over an hour set for hospital nurseries in 1999 by an expert panel concerned with improving newborn sleep and their speech intelligibility.
“These machines are capable of delivering noise that we think is unsafe for full-grown adults in mines,” said Dr. Blake Papsin, the senior author of the paper and the chief otolaryngologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Dr. Papsin got the idea for this study after a parent brought a portable white noise machine to the hospital that sounded as roaring as a carwash.
“Unless parents are adequately warned of the danger, or the design of the machines by manufacturers is changed to be safer, then the potential for harm exists, and parents need to know about it,” said Dr. Gordon B. Hughes, the program director of clinical trials for the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, who was not involved in the study.
Safe use is possible, the study’s authors suggest. “Farther away is less dangerous, a lower volume is better and shorter durations of time, all things that deliver less sound pressure to the baby,” Dr. Papsin said.
Image: Sleeping newborn, via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, March 4th, 2014
Many parents breathed a sigh of relief when the FDA banned the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) from plastics that are used in infant feeding vessels including bottles and sippy cups in 2012. Studies have linked the chemical, which is known to disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking the hormone estrogen, to health problems including miscarriage risk, and childhood obesity, asthma, and behavioral issues. Many parents were disappointed, though, when the FDA, shortly before making its BPA ban in infant materials, stopped short of banning it from all food containers, especially canned foods and even infant formula packages.
But the debate over the safety of plastics is far from over–and it is larger than the BPA question–according to a new report from Mother Jones magazine that chronicles the work of research organizations that claims that even “safe” plastics leach estrogenic, hormone-disrupting compounds. More from the Mother Jones article:
Each night at dinnertime, a familiar ritual played out in Michael Green’s home: He’d slide a stainless steel sippy cup across the table to his two-year-old daughter, Juliette, and she’d howl for the pink plastic one. Often, Green gave in. But he had a nagging feeling. As an environmental-health advocate, he had fought to rid sippy cups and baby bottles of the common plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA), which mimics the hormone estrogen and has been linked to a long list of serious health problems. Juliette’s sippy cup was made from a new generation of BPA-free plastics, but Green, who runs the Oakland, California-based Center for Environmental Health, had come across research suggesting some of these contained synthetic estrogens, too.
He pondered these findings as the center prepared for its anniversary celebration in October 2011. That evening, Green, a slight man with scruffy blond hair and pale-blue eyes, took the stage and set Juliette’s sippy cups on the podium. He recounted their nightly standoffs. “When she wins…every time I worry about what are the health impacts of the chemicals leaching out of that sippy cup,” he said, before listing some of the problems linked to those chemicals—cancer, diabetes, obesity. To help solve the riddle, he said, his organization planned to test BPA-free sippy cups for estrogenlike chemicals.
The center shipped Juliette’s plastic cup, along with 17 others purchased from Target, Walmart, and Babies R Us, to CertiChem, a lab in Austin, Texas. More than a quarter—including Juliette’s—came back positive for estrogenic activity. These results mirrored the lab’s findings in its broader National Institutes of Health-funded research on BPA-free plastics. CertiChem and its founder, George Bittner, who is also a professor of neurobiology at the University of Texas-Austin, had recently coauthored a paper in the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It reported that “almost all” commercially available plastics that were tested leached synthetic estrogens—even when they weren’t exposed to conditions known to unlock potentially harmful chemicals, such as the heat of a microwave, the steam of a dishwasher, or the sun’s ultraviolet rays. According to Bittner’s research, some BPA-free products actually released synthetic estrogens that were more potent than BPA.
Estrogen plays a key role in everything from bone growth to ovulation to heart function. Too much or too little, particularly in utero or during early childhood, can alter brain and organ development, leading to disease later in life. Elevated estrogen levels generally increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer….
Today many plastic products, from sippy cups and blenders to Tupperware containers, are marketed as BPA-free. But Bittner’s findings—some of which have been confirmed by other scientists—suggest that many of these alternatives share the qualities that make BPA so potentially harmful.
Those startling results set off a bitter fight with the $375-billion-a-year plastics industry. The American Chemistry Council, which lobbies for plastics makers and has sought to refute the science linking BPA to health problems, has teamed up with Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical—the maker of Tritan, a widely used plastic marketed as being free of estrogenic activity—in a campaign to discredit Bittner and his research. The company has gone so far as to tell corporate customers that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected Bittner’s testing methods. (It hasn’t.) Eastman also sued CertiChem and its sister company, PlastiPure, to prevent them from publicizing their findings that Tritan is estrogenic, convincing a jury that its product displayed no estrogenic activity. And it launched a PR blitz touting Tritan’s safety, targeting the group most vulnerable to synthetic estrogens: families with young children. “It can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe,” the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, said in one web video, before an image of a pregnant woman flickered across the screen. With Tritan, he added, “consumers can feel confident that the material used in their products is free of estrogenic activity.”
Eastman’s offensive is just the latest in a wide-ranging industry campaign to cast doubt on the potential dangers of plastics in food containers, packaging, and toys—a campaign that closely resembles the methods Big Tobacco used to stifle scientific evidence about the dangers of smoking.
The article goes on to report that CertiChem and PlastiPure are appealing the 2013 court ruling that alleged the companies were trying to discredit Eastman in order to market their own “safe” plastics, and the groups are working on new research.
Mother Jones also published a timeline that shows the history of the fight against BPA, and how the industry and even government regulators have apparently ignored concerning research about the safety of BPA-free plastics.
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Image: Child with plastic sippy cup, via Shutterstock
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BPA, childhood asthma, childhood obesity, endocrine disruptors, estrogen, fertility, hormones, miscarriage, Mother Jones, plastics | Categories:
Child Health, Must Read, New Research, Parenting News, Safety