Yesterday, Emily Oster dared to touch the third rail of motherhood: breastfeeding. In an article fittingly titled "Everybody Calm Down About Breastfeeding," the mom, author, and Brown University economics professor dug deep into the pool of research and found that maybe nursing isn't the magic cure-all we think it is.
Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that recent studies have linked a mother's milk to everything from baby's improved brain development to better jobs in the future. As Oster wrote, "If one takes the claims seriously, it is not difficult to conclude that breastfed babies are all thin, rich geniuses who love their mothers and are never sick a day in their lives while formula-fed babies become overweight, low-IQ adults who hate their parents and spend most of their lives in the hospital."
It's not so much that the current body of research is a bunch of malarkey, she says—it's more that the data doesn't tell the entire story. Oster wrote that in the majority of studies, authors don't fully adjust for differences in the subjects' race, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., and breastfeeding isn't randomly assigned. And in some cases, researchers' own biases skewed results. So while the results are true to the study, they don't translate into real life. In fact, when she looked at the research that came the closest to offering a complete picture of breast milk's benefits, the proven perks fell to two: lowering baby's chances of diarrhea and eczema.
To quote Peggy Lee, is that all there is?
As a vocal champion of breastfeeding, I've got to tell you, this was a tough read. By the end, I felt the same sense of confusion and deflation as I did on Christmas Eve in 1980, when my sister Michelle told me Santa Claus wasn't real. This may not be the first time someone wondered whether breast really is best, but for some reason, Oster's arguments struck a nerve.
It's true that like the guy in red, some of the extolled benefits of nursing do seem a little far-fetched; I never could see the connection between breast milk and a higher IQ, for instance. But when you're a believer, you tend to welcome the good news—any good news —with open arms. It bolsters your argument and proves that you're right. Except when it doesn't—and where do you go from there?
I imagine much more unbiased research is needed before the medical community changes its stance on nursing. (The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization currently recommend exclusive breastfeeding for baby's first six months of life.) In the meantime, I'd hardly be tempted to toss out my nursing bra. After all, there are still a number of undisputed benefits, like the bonding opportunities, the easy convenience and the low cost. But this article is a good reminder for me that though breast was best for me and my child, that's not the case for everyone—and it doesn't have to be.
Don't forget to sign up to receive our free Parents Daily Baby newsletter.
Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.
How to Store Breast Milk
Image of breastfeeding baby courtesy of Shutterstock