Wednesday, 7 November 2012

No, formula-feeding is not going to turn your child into a criminal (and stuff)

The other morning, I was skimming Facebook while sipping my morning coffee and stumbled across this little piece while wading through numerous election day posts. The author, who styles herself as The Alpha Parent, churned out an Ann Coulter-esque rabid lactard post rife with judgment on formula-feeding mothers - and while this certainly isn't anything new from that camp, she had a few interesting points that were so blatantly false I felt they needed addressing (even a year later).

First, let's discuss some of the glaring problems that breastfeeding research faces. Current pro-breast research is rife with issues including selection bias, inconsistent outcomes, and confounding variables that cannot be controlled for when doing mere observational studies and relying on self-report. What this means, for example,is that for every pro-breast study that claims breastmilk raises IQ, another study points out that the mother's IQ, and not her breast milk, is the significant factor in a child's intelligence.  This holds true for virtually all (excepting one, preventing necrotizing enterocolitis, which I'll get to in a bit) pro-breast feeding claims - in fact, a meta-analysis of breastfeeding research on the prevention of leukemia found that "There are few high-quality studies that examine the potential for a protective effect of breastfeeding for childhood leukemia. Furthermore, the few studies that exist disagree regarding the association." (citation in previous link). Pick the claim - obesity, allergiesautism (this study suggests that breastmilk is a causative factor, and not the other way around); the list goes on and on - and aside from lowering the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis in low-birth-weight infants, there is not a single study touted by lactivist extremists that cannot be definitively refuted by other studies. Don't take my word on it - Momma DataThe Fearless Formula Feeder, and Science-Based Medicine all offer balanced, well-researched articles on the myths and facts surrounding breastfeeding research (and parenting and health issues in general).

But back to The Alpha Parent - aside from her laundry list of conditions she claims are caused by formula feeding and offset by breastfeeding (all refuted in other studies, by other researchers), she makes a few other highly inflammatory claims that are not merely baseless, but are designed to shame formula-feeding mothers, and feeds into the smug, self-righteous rhetoric echoed by many other breastfeeding extremists. While this may be popular with her base, it alienates far more mothers from her cause; much like hellfire-and-brimstone preaching tends to repel an unbeliever, rather than causing them to "repent."

One particularly incitive claim she makes is that formula feeding leads to child abuse, citing this study (although she cleverly links several other publications that mention the study, effectively making it look like she has "numerous studies" to back this claim, though they're all actually the same study). However, there is one glaring problem with the study: the confounders. Among others, the researchers noted that issues such as economic status, substance abuse, whether or not the pregnancy was wanted or expected, and symptoms of depression or anxiety were all possible co-contributors, and with the reliance on self-reporting of the study subjects, the correlation between formula feeding and child abuse is no more significant than that between eating ice cream and drowning. Furthermore, she states that "an alternative, and in my opinion more compelling hypothesis, is that breastfed babies are less likely to be abused because they cry roughly half as much as formula-fed babies." - except this study found that exclusively breast-fed and mixed-fed  (combination of breast and bottle feeding) infants exhibited lower positive responses to stimulation, a reduced ability to regulate their own emotions (self-soothe), and higher emotional instability - in effect, per The Guardian, "breastfed babies cry more, laugh less, and generally have more challenging temperaments than formula-fed infants" (citation in link). Huh.

The blogger makes similarly inflammatory claims correlating formula feeding with higher crime rates (again not taking into account factors such as those listed above as contributing to abuse, and with much stronger associations), rising healthcare costs, taxes, and anti-feminism; really the only thing she doesn't blame on formula-feeding is climate change and homosexuality. And to what end? Do posts like this really influence a new mother's decision on how to feed her child? They don't - and that's probably not the point. These posts serve one purpose, which is to elevate breastfeeding to mythical proportions while simultaneously ridiculing and shaming mothers who choose not to breastfeed. That's not progress, people.

In the end, what matters in parenting is not how your children emerge from your body, or what and how you choose to feed them that first year (breast or bottle). What matters is how your son treats the women in his life, and how well your daughter accepts her looks and her body. What matters is that your children grow to be confident in their abilities, to be tolerant of others, and to be kind to people who can do nothing for them. I'm pretty sure you can instill those values in your children whether they were breast or bottle fed.

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