Study Finds Long-Term Health Benefits of Breastfeeding May Be Overstated

colen_A new study led by Cynthia Colen, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University, questions whether the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated. Her research focused on siblings in the same family where one child was breastfed and another was not. Her results showed little differences in health outcomes for children who had reached ages 4 to 14.

Colen maintains that breastfeeding is important for nutrition and building immunity in newborns. But she is skeptical that the long-term benefits of breastfeeding are as apparent as other studies have indicated.

“Many previous studies suffer from selection bias,” according to Dr. Colen. “They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother’s employment – things we know can affect both breastfeeding and health outcomes. Moms with more resources, with higher levels of education, and higher levels of income, and more flexibility in their daily schedules are more likely to breastfeed their children and do so for longer periods of time. But it’s not clear what’s affecting an outcome like obesity – is it breastfeeding itself or those other background characteristics?”

In other words, while breastfed babies may grow up healthier, other socioeconomic factors may contribute more to their better health than breastfeeding itself.

Dr. Colen concludes, “We need to take a much more careful look at what happens past that first year of life and understand that breastfeeding might be very difficult, even untenable, for certain groups of women. Rather than placing the blame at their feet, let’s be more realistic about what breastfeeding does and doesn’t do.”

Dr. Colen has been on the faculty at Ohio State since 2007. She is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan, where she majored in women’s studies. Dr. Colen hold a master of public health degree and a Ph.D. in health behavior and health education from the University of Michigan.

The study, “Is Breast Truly Best? Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling Comparisons,” was published on the website of the journal Social Science & Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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