From time to time, the media reports on new research about various health outcomes associated with infant feeding.
There always seems to be a particular flurry when the research appears to indicate breastfeeding has no effect.
The latest headlines to hit the media have been about the relationship (or reportedly lack thereof) between breastfeeding and IQ.
These headlines refer to research from the University of London, which claims breastfeeding does not have an impact on IQ.
According to media reports, the authors of this research (which used data from the Twins Early Development Study) concluded: “Breastfeeding has little benefit for early life intelligence and cognitive growth from toddlerhood through adolescence.”
So, is this true? Despite previous research to the contrary, what can we make of this new research?
Firstly, we need to realise…
It’s Just One Study
Research outcomes need to be taken into account with what previous research on the same topic has found.
Leading health organisations around the world recommend exclusive breastfeeding for about the first 6 months, followed by breastfeeding, alongside suitable solids foods, for at least one year. Such organisations make their recommendations by critically appraising the breadth of the research, not by looking at a single study.
So, if a single study shows breastfeeding doesn’t affect IQ, but the breadth of the research shows it does, then the single study holds less significance.
Another important factor to consider is the quality of the research, including how breastfeeding is defined.
Breastfeeding Definitions Are Crucial – But Have Been Omitted By The New Study
Results and subsequent conclusions drawn from any single piece of research are only as valid and reliable as the quality of the research itself.
One of the most important factors when it comes to research into health outcomes associated with infant feeding is how breastfeeding is defined. It’s important for researchers to quantify breastfeeding as much as possible – that is, to show for exactly how long babies were breastfed.
The final paper from this research is still ‘in press’ so isn’t available to view as yet.
However, the dataset is publicly available.
From the dataset, there is an obvious major flaw in this research.
The researchers determined which babies were breastfed by using a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.
This means a baby could have been allocated into the ‘breastfed' group, even if she had only been breastfed for a day! Any babies who were breastfed for one year or more could have been included in the same group!
In reality, there is a wide range of variability in how babies are ‘breastfed’. Some are mixed fed (to varying degrees), some are exclusively breastfed for a matter of days or months, and some are breastfed for a number of months or years.
Research that simply asks whether a baby is breastfed or not does not take this variability into account.
Therefore, conclusions drawn about any effect of breastfeeding, or lack of, need to be taken with a grain of salt.
See more information and studies about breastfeeding and IQ here.
Breastfeeding Isn't Magic
Breastfeeding and breastmilk are amazing things, but they're not magic. We can’t expect one breastfeed to make any significant difference in terms of health outcomes. It’s like saying ‘My grandmother smoked a few cigarette back in 1932 and she didn’t die of lung cancer. Therefore, smoking has no effect on lung cancer.’
Before conclusions can be drawn from research, it’s important to put single study findings into context, and consider them with what the breadth of the research shows. We also need to look at the quality of each piece of research with a critical eye.
How breastfeeding is defined in research is one of the most important aspects to evaluate.
And remember, media journalists are almost never qualified researchers or specialists (for example, lactation consultants), so they won’t have a clear idea of what the latest research really means in the bigger scheme of things. Their stories are boldly written to attract as many readers as possible for their publications. They don’t check studies to see whether they are of good quality or whether they contain simple, but critical errors like this one did.
And often, they don't find out who funded the research. For all we know, it could have ben a company that makes formula. Recently it was revealed that Coca Cola has issued a blank cheque for research, for researchers to tell us bad diets and sugar aren’t the bad guy.
Whenever you hear claims in the media about health issues, always check with a specialist before making any decisions or changing what you currently do. The claims might well have a weak foundation to begin with, or are made to satisfy vested interests.