Ru­mours of breast and bot­tle

How cred­i­ble is it to turn breast milk into a panacea and nat­u­ral law that all women must sub­scribe to?

Down to Earth - - COLUMN - DOWN TO EARTH

Tben­e­fits of breast­feed­ing are stuff of HE HEALTH com­mon­sense, and are in­creas­ingly en­dorsed by science. But when some­one claims that breast­fed ba­bies grow up into smarter and wealth­ier adults, it does raise a few eye­brows.That’s pre­cisely the sug­ges­tion of a re­cent con­tro­ver­sial study from Brazil that tracked about 3,500 new­borns over a pe­riod of 30 years and con­cluded that the longer the wean­ing pe­riod,the higher the in­tel­li­gence and earn­ing abil­ity in later years.

The study, which graces the cover of the lat­est is­sue of The Lancet Global Health, has sparked off a fresh row in a highly po­larised de­bate be­tween the cham­pi­ons of breast­feed­ing who seek a ban on for­mula foods and a band of fem­i­nists who be­lieve that the global frenzy over breast­feed­ing un­der­mines the pol­i­tics of women’s rights.

It’s true that in re­cent decades gov­ern­ments, in­ter­na­tional agen­cies, and me­dia have come to­gether to can­vass for breast­feed­ing. In the UK, for ex­am­ple, work­ing class women are “bribed” to breast­feed their ba­bies; in In­dia, doc­tors are for­bid­den by law to pro­mote for­mula.There is even a World Breast­feed­ing Week ob­served ev­ery Au­gust.

Part of this is fu­elled by an es­sen­tial­ist view of moth­er­hood, in part by the greens’ cam­paign against com­mer­cial in­fant milk sub­sti­tutes and in part by the fact that a large num­ber of ba­bies, mostly in the de­vel­op­ing world, die young be­cause they don’t get enough breast milk. But the great­est ad­ver­tiser by far is the sci­ence­me­dia nexus.Me­dia is full of sto­ries of how breast­feed­ing makes chil­dren health­ier and smarter,and con­versely,how for­mula milk ren­ders them vul­ner­a­ble to dis­eases,such as stom­ach in­fec­tions,al­ler­gies and asthma.

How cred­i­ble are th­ese sto­ries? Let’s con­sider the Brazil­ian study.De­spite its rea­son­ably good de­sign,it has been crit­i­cised on many counts.First,many peo­ple view IQ tests as a flawed and mis­lead­ing mea­sure of in­tel­li­gence. If any­thing, they re­flect so­cial class and cul­tural bi­ases more than true in­tel­li­gence. Link­ing breast­feed­ing with in­creased in­tel­li­gence there­fore may seem over the top. Sec­ond,half the sub­jects in the study dropped be­fore it was con­cluded,which weak­ens the va­lid­ity of its con­clu­sions.

Lastly,even though so­cial class was not a con­found­ing fac­tor as poor and rel­a­tively priv­i­leged moth­ers breast­fed their ba­bies alike, the fact re­mains that across cul­tures moth­ers who suckle their ba­bies more and longer tend to be bet­ter ed­u­cated and wealth­ier than those who don’t, or for some rea­son can­not. In fact, last year a study at the Ohio State Uni­ver­sity in the US found that many of the much-touted longterm ad­van­tages at­trib­uted to breast­feed­ing may have lot more to do with the so­cial and ma­te­rial well­be­ing of the women who opt to nurse their ba­bies than with breast milk it­self.

Cor­re­la­tion, as they say, doesn’t im­ply cau­sa­tion, a cru­cial distinc­tion the me­dia of­ten fails to ap­pre­ci­ate. By this reckoning, many be­lieve that the only cred­i­ble ben­e­fit of breast­feed­ing is that it protects the child against stom­ach bugs.They dis­miss other benefits as un­proven or con­tra­dic­tory,and as­sert that in most stud­ies of the Brazil­ian kind, tak­ing full mea­sure of the so­cioe­co­nomic moor­ings would nar­row the “gap be­tween breast and bot­tle”.

No one, not even the rad­i­cal fem­i­nists, de­nies some health benefits of breast­feed­ing. But to turn it into a panacea and a nat­u­ral law that all women must sub­scribe to re­gard­less of their will or con­straints makes for bad pol­i­tics.In­deed,for all we know,the se­cret be­hind chil­dren who turn out bet­ter may lie not in the sup­posed am­brosial prop­er­ties of some chem­i­cal found in breast milk but in the happy and mys­te­ri­ous con­spir­acy of in­nu­mer­able el­e­ments such as a hike in the hills, granny’s im­prob­a­ble tales, an inspiring book, vi­o­lin lessons or first love, that ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine the style and sub­stance of one’s life.


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