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The Breastmilk Benefits "Myth"

I consider myself a lactivist. I mean, if there is truly a place in the world for a woman who thinks that babies should be fed what nature made for them, instead of the breastmilk from a distantly related species.

That means I know that breastmilk is simply better than formula.

But now an author and feminist says that we should question the breastmilk/formula debate. Is breastmilk really better, or are the differences so minute that it doesn’t matter what you put in baby’s mouth?

Joan Wolf was interviewed by the Times in the UK, where she said,

The evidence to date suggests it probably doesn’t make much difference if you breastfeed.

She says that many studies contradict one another, and others which show no discernible difference in health benefits. There are numerous claims about breastfeeding, she says, which can’t be proven:


Some of the more questionable claims include:

  • Formula-fed babies are more obese.
  • Breastfed babies have higher IQ.
  • Formula-fed babies have a higher incidence of asthma, eczema, and chest and ear infections.

And Wolf also claims that the breastfeeding lobby picks and chooses the studies to follow to push their beliefs on the public.

But what I never understand when I hear statements like this is, “The breastfeeding lobby? Lactivists like me who have no financial interest in breastfeeders?” I don’t get it. I’m just forcing women to BF because of my own selfish reasons?! I supplemented with formula for my older son, so I am well-versed in the issues and guilty feelings.

But you are already aware of these silly arguments against breastfeeding, because many of you probably followed the Hanna Rosin controversy, to which we all eventually said,

If breastfeeding is worth nothing, you are saying that time spent bonding with our infants, as close as we possibly can, is time wasted.

For one doctor, Michael Kramer, who advised the WHO and other health organizations, there are benefits, but they’re still not as fantastic as we’d all been led to believe. He thinks that breastfeeding is better for respiratory systems and for stomach bugs. He also thinks that research will continue to show that breastfeeding is good for IQ, at least by a few points.

But as far as the rest of the claims, he says:

The evidence is weak Allergies? ‘Weak.’ Asthma? ‘Weak.’

There is very little evidence that it reduces the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma, bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure . . .”

The breast cancer data is pretty solid, but on ovarian cancer and osteoporosis it is far iffier.

Now, there are some of these points that even I had never heard of.

And let’s not forget all of the problems with formula: the packaging (waste), the bisphenol-A, the melamine, and the rocket fuel. Please don’t tell me that formula is “just as good”: I don’t serve my baby melamine through my boobs.

Need more proof? How about the “Formula is Voldemort” study, which showed that researchers regularly changed wording in studies so as not to sound like formula was the culprit in health problems? Instead, authors would use breastfeeding in the title, touting its benefits (so as to sound more positive, I suppose). Dr. Julie Smith, who was part of the research, said,

We looked at the findings of nearly 80 authoritative studies, all of which highlighted that formula-fed babies tend to be at higher risk of poor health than children fed on breast milk.

But as far as the supposedly “small” benefits of breastmilk: as any parent of a special needs child knows, all of these are huge in their world. Give a few IQ points to a child with Down Syndrome or a little extra closeness to a child with ASD: these benefits matter!

But even the “normal” kids: breastfeeding does have benefits.  And if you want to stop discussing the health benefits, which we’re all well-versed on, let’s focus on this cost-benefit analysis, brought to us by Mothering.com. Some of the highlights of the article:

  • The AAP says each formula-fed infant costs the healthcare system between $331 and $475 more than a breastfed baby in its first year of life.
  • Data from 47 international studies found that for every year a woman breastfeeds, she reduces her risk of breast cancer by an average of 4.3 percent. The risk is reduced a further 7 percent by simply having a baby.
  • For each year of breastfeeding, a woman decreases her chances of getting type 2 diabetes by 15 percent, reported a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association
  • For the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), supporting a breastfeeding mother costs about 45 percent less than a formula-feeding mother. Every year, $578 million in federal funds buys formula for babies who could be breastfeeding.

However, there is one point which I will agree with Wolf on. So far, the science is imperfect and would be much more thorough if it wasn’t always women discussing this matter:

Let’s think about what would happen if we asked fathers to do this, if there were somehow evidence that babies who are looked after by their fathers at home for six months do better. We would see a lot more critiquing of the science, a lot more people saying the benefit is marginal, a greater reluctance to offer the advice.

To which I answer: Yes! But if we want to look at the feminist politics of breastfeeding, let’s make the workplace more family-friendly and support breastfeeding. Let’s not push it by the wayside because we find the natural processes of our bodies to be inconvenient.

Image: timtom.ch on Flickr under a Creative Commons License.


  1. I just wrote a blurb about this in the comments for another blog about breastfeeding and it is so pointed here.

    If there was a financial/corporate interest in breastfeeding, like there is in formula feeding, you would need a doctor’s prescription and a valid ID showing you were over the age of 21 to buy infant formula. There is no question in my mind about this. We actually have to have a “civil rights movement” in order to feed our children properly – it goes beyond asinine.

  2. Whether the actual breastmilk substance benefits can be debated…in my mind there is no question that the bonding, cuddling time that breastfeeding REQUIRES for a year is enough of a reason itself to breastfeed. There were many times during bfing each of my child that I would have liked to be away from my infant for longer than the 3 hours between a feeding to run errands, go to meeting, the gym whatever….but God designed bfng as that leash that the mom needs to connect physically with the child so many times a day. I think it’s imparent. We spend 9 months as one…a year of additional connection is great!

  3. That final quote from the report says more than all the rest about the motivations of the writer. I agree with Cate – it’s the working conditions that need to change, not the baby food! Take this same example and apply it to adults – “Businesses could save 1/2-1 hour of productivity a day if they didn’t have to give employees a lunch break. So everyone should take a processed super-pill and skip the real food”! Sadly, that’s not too far from the truth. It makes me angry to hear criticisms of the “breastfeeding lobby” but no mention of the formula company lobbyists who have a financial interest in turning people off breastfeeding.

  4. Aren’t there studies that say a women is less likely to get breast cancer if they have nursed for 7 or more years?

    That always made sense to me– when something is not used for it’s designed purpose their is more likely-hood for disease to set in.

    I think women should do what they need and want to do: guilt laid aside, but I do question, from a larger perspective, a society who will set aside a perfectly designed bodily function for reasons of “ease”. Sometimes you cannot see all the ramifications of a said action. I am someone who deeply trusts evolutionary design and also sees how widely everything is interconnected. For me, not breastfeeding would be very strange–it would go against my being.

    But I don’t think women should be guilted into it. I would just ask that they make a conscious, well-educated, intuitive and informed decision.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of flack for saying this, but there is definitely an informal breastfeeding lobby out there. Many mothers condemn and criticize mothers who don’t breastfeed as not caring enough about their children and arguing all the health points above that have not been unequivocally proven. You yourself used phrases like “I supplemented with formula for my older son, so I am well-versed in the issues and guilty feelings”, but then say “Please don’t tell me that formula is “just as good”: I don’t serve my baby melamine through my boobs.” But the fact that studies have shown chemicals (like BPA and perchlorate [aka rocket fuel]) can also be found in breastmilk is not mentioned.

    As someone who’s children are 3rd generation formula fed, all with extremely healthy constitutions, 3rd generation with gifted IQs, I do not feel like we are disadvantaged compared to those who were breastfed. Other mothers always assume I breastfed or have used formula because I wasn’t able to breastfed and I honestly feel I have to hide my choice not to. Why should a mother be made to feel guilty about a this one choice more than any other parenting decision?? There isn’t the same level of criticism with moms who choose to feed kids non-organic food, processed meals or over-the-counter meds despite countless studies showing the chemicals in them and their negative effects. If you don’t use breastmilk, you’re not being the best mother is the message that keeps getting pushed. I think this new study is trying to show it’s not as black & white as that. If you choose to breastfed because you feel it’s best in your life that’s fine, but if someone else doesn’t, they shouldn’t be treated as though they’re letting their children down.

  6. I really should say something intelligent here, but I fear that I’m just out of arguments. Like Sharon said – it’s “asinine” that this is even a debate.

    Imagine an alternate universe where perfectly healthy men were told by a corporation the erections they get every day aren’t good enough for sex, so they should stop those erections (the way many women extinguish breastmilk production) and instead rely on Viagara alone to provide them with their erect falice. You might see “Erectionist” groups popping up (ehem, no pun intended) fighting for their right to use their very own body for sex without being enslaved to the corporations to provide them with one.

    I mean… right? Here’s what I said about it on Twitter, and I suppose I don’t have much else to say about it other than this one statement:

    Dear Anti-BFing Feminists: It’s Empowering to enslave yourself to a Formula Co. whose product undermines your health? Smart thinking.

  7. I’m immensely disappointed in my feminist sisters for making these arguments. You are driving otherwise healthy and intelligent women to feed their babies fake, corporately developed “food” in the name of a political agenda. Ridiculous.

    Guess what? I wouldn’t give two shits if formula was fortified with liquid brain power and disease immunity – IT’S FAKE FOOD. It will always be FAKE FOOD. I don’t eat fake food, why in hell would I give my baby that?

    Stop trying to take AWAY a woman’s power to feed and nurture her child!

  8. I have 3 kids. The younger two were/are exclusively breastfed. The oldest one had a mix of formula and pumped breast milk for the first 6 weeks, and then my milk dried up & she was 100% on formula. All 3 are extremely similar in terms of health, weight, IQ, etc. I’m not any more bonded to the babies I breastfed than to the one I bottlefed. I happen to agree with Hanna Rosin and Dr. Kramer that the benefits of breastfeeding are often exaggerated.

    The real benefits to breastfeeding are that it’s free and ultraconvenient. Whenever I hear people claiming that formula is more convenient, it just baffles me. How is it not more convenient to simply unhook one’s nursing bra and pop the baby on vs. wash & sterilize the bottle, mix the formula, warm the bottle, and only then feed the baby? Any time I left the house I had to double-check that I brought a bottle and enough formula. Talk about inconvenient!

  9. Cassaundra says:

    Disputes over the science supporting breastfeeding are not founded. There is in fact VERY clear scientific evidence to demonstrate the significant superiority of breastmilk to artificial breastmilk substitutes. Please consult this response from UNICEF.


    Those scientists who are not being paid by formula companies agree. Breastfeeding is the normal way of feeding an infant. Artificial alternatives are nowhere near sufficient and carry a significant risk of illness and death to infants. Period.

    Any emotional responses that women infer from this simple scientific truth are their own responsibility and cannot be blamed on those who practice scientific research. It is simple medical truth; Breastfeeding is normal and using formula is sub-standard and dangerous. If an infant escapes harm from being exposed to a risk, it does not mean that the risk doesn’t exist. It means that the infant was one of the lucky ones who escaped injury. When making the choice to formula feed, Mothers need to know that the practice is dangerous and risky. If they still choose to do so, fine. But it should be with full knowledge of the dangers that they are exposing their child to.

  10. oh my goodness!! what is the hysteria about?? every woman with half a brain by now is aware of the breast v bottle debate so every woman should make their mind up whether to bf or not. NO WOMAN SHOULD BE MADE TO FEEL GUILTY FOR HER CHOICE. If you choose to BF, what on earth gives you the right to be critical of someone else’s choice? these postings are ridiculous!!!

    Nobody is trying to “take AWAY a woman’s power to feed and nurture her child!” (could you be any more of a drama queen??) If you feel you want to BF – please go ahead – nobody is stopping you, but equally so, if someone feels that they prefer to feed their child formula they should also be able to do it without having to read fanatical, guilt-giving postings from hysterical women like the ones above.

    I never post comments to these things – I usually have better things to do – however I was forced to on reading these comments.

    and FYI I am breastfeeding, just so you don’t think I am one of the corporate formula monster mothers speaking out of self interest….

    • Amen! I’m so sick of parent’s judging other parents. No ones perfect so get over it. The women who judge others for not breastfeeding are only doing so to make themselves feel superior. Classic bullying!

  11. VeggieMomma says:

    @ Kate—I couldn’t have said it better myself! I agree 100%

    @ Anonymous—There is a bf’ing lobby out there and I’m proudly a part of it. I question women who choose formula ‘just because’. Wouldn’t you question someone who chose to provide second rate care for their children ‘just because’?

    Society needs to change in order for bf’ing to be more supported by employees, government, and even cultural contructs and expectations. If people who use formula feel guilty for it, maybe it is because they know better and eventually more people will choose breastmilk because they are expected to by their peers. I have no qualms if my choice to provide breastmilk to my children causes formula feeding moms to feel guilty. Maybe they can make the better choice next time.

  12. One benefit that is not mentioned is that breastfeeding gives the mom an opportunity to bond with her baby. The baby feels secure, safe and warm which is a must for the baby’s brain to develop optimally http://www.raisesmartkid.com/raise-smart-baby-articles/how-love-and-caring-makes-your-baby-smart.html

  13. Breastfeeding is wonderful if that is what you choose for your family! I don’t need anyone telling me that they know what is right for my family. I know my body and my baby better than anyone. I know plenty of perfectly healthy, intelligent bottle fed children. Do what you think is best, but don’t use it as a way to feel superior over other mothers. I think a depressed, guilt-ridden mother probably causes more damage to her body and her baby than a well adjusted, happy bottle feeding mom!

  14. im a mother of 2 and i breastfed my kids. the first baby i had,i breastfed her for about 8 months and my second child he is 1 year and a half and still breastfeeding.and i heard a lot of rumors that this time my milk is not anymore nutritious for my baby. can anyone clear my thoughts about it.thanks

  15. @kareen

    I have also read that breastmilk “quality” goes down as a child grows and is finding nutrition in food as well as breastmilk, but that does not mean that there is still not huge benefits! It is still nutritious, just not as much as it was for a newborn, as nature has designed it. Toddlers benefit from breastmilk though, and it helps them from getting sick by passing on your immunities.

  16. Thanks jennifer,yeah,as the child grows the more nutrients and vitamins the child need so breastmilk is not enough but it doen’t mean it not nutritious.

  17. I just read this and even though it is old I had to comment. Mostly due to the most judgy comments I have EVER read on the topic from Cassaundra.

    I was just last weekend having a discussion with three of my close friends about infant feeding. They have one child each, and I have twins. Due to LOW SUPPLY and other issues (not a choice really), I had to supplement my twins with formula and then I was pretty much out of milk by 2 weeks. My twins are almost three. Neither child has ever had an ear infection or any other infection. One daughter had a fever once for an hour. The other daughter never had a fever but vomited one time only. No colds, coughs, runny noses. Height in the 99th percentile for both children, weight in the 50-60th%. Superior intelligence (documented). No allergies, asthma, autism, weird behaviour, etc.
    My friends were absolutely astounded at my children’s health as their children have had numerous illnesses. My one friend who breast fed exclusively until a year – her son was hospitalized twice for serious infections during his first six months of life. My other friend’s son is always sick and was during the 8 months that she breastfed as well. Data point is, out of 5 kids, the 2 kids who were barely breastfed were the healthiest by far. So…what do you say to this? Oh yes, my niece had about 7 ear infections by age 2, and my coworker’s son was hospitalized with pneumonia during his first year – both exclusively breast fed!

    Given these personal experiences, it’s hard for me to agree with Cassaundra that formula feeding is “dangerous” and “lethal”. Honestly, how about worrying about yourself and not being so outwardly nasty about others’ situations and choices? You don’t know and you don’t understand everyone’s individual circumstances.

  18. Cassaundra… You need to be caged. Seriously. Someone as judgemental and overly dramatic as you should not be allowed to procreate. I cannot imagine the damage you do to children on a daily basis just by the words that come out of your mouth. Some women can’t breastfeed (low milk supply). Just because it works for you, doesn’t mean that it works for everyone. Do the world a favor and keep your trap shut until you have something smart to say. (my bet, you’ll be silent a reeeaaally long time)

  19. I am from Peru where women breastfeed their kids until 2 0r 3. Formula in Peru is very expensive ($40 a can) and you can’t find organic stuff so doctors here really push breastfeeding to the max specially for poor families, you would think that a child that had breast milk for 4 years would have a higher iq and good health… well just look at the numbers, peru has the lowest iq in the region and a high infant mortallity. I guess it depends on what the mom is eating. I was had breastmilk until i was 4 and I had higher score at school but got sick as everybody else. My daugther had breastmilk for 4 months and then organic formula, she is 3 now and is very smart and physically the top of her class. I guess if you get the right formula it won’t make such a big diference, breast mild is better but perhaps a little overrated.
    Sorry about my english

  20. I have to (sigh..) agree with Cassaundra. Studies show that formula fed infants in third world countries do have a ridiculous mortality rate. Due to the formula preperation instructions being in English only in some cases, (Ah-hem,remember Nestle?) where English is not widly spoken, or read, and the lack of clean drinking water. Poor mothers are given FREE supply of formula in the hospital only to be cut off as soon as they go home. What happens to the mother’s milk supply? They are left with the only option of buying formula that they can’t afford and perhaps end up reconstituting less formula and more (sub par?) water to make it last longer.

    Here in the United States on the other hand…
    I do believe parents are well informed of sanitary bottle feeding and all the pros of breastfeeding. At least in my area. I was pressured in the begining by my own family to feed my first baby formula. I was formula fed. So was my mother. I had my first child at 20, and am now a mother to 3. I exclusivley breastfed my babies for the first 7 months before introducing organic baby food. I continued breastfeeding until 13-18 months each. My family believes that breastfeeding should be a thing of the past because we have enough money to buy formula. Oh, and seeing a woman wearing a squirming blanket and tiny baby feet beneath it is somehow offensive. I didn’t realize it was still the 1970’s…

    Whatever reason mothers decide to breast or formula feed is a very personal decision that shouldn’t be judged by anyone.


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