AUSTIN, TX – MAY 31, 2023
Major health and medical organizations universally recommend six months or more of exclusive breastfeeding to promote children’s development. But meeting this ideal is tough for many mothers. Breastfeeding is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and requires a lot of support from partners and others. Thus, it is not surprising that only 25% of U.S. infants are exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months, and breastfeeding rates are lower among mothers with fewer economic and social resources. Public health initiatives consider increasing rates of breastfeeding in these populations of mothers imperative to improving children’s health and wellbeing.
However, recent research indicates that the benefits of breastfeeding have been overstated, leading some to call into question the assumption that “breast is best.”
A briefing paper released today from the Council on Contemporary Families, “Best for Whom? Breastfeeding and Child Development”, summarizes new research on the relationship between breastfeeding and a comprehensive set of longer-term child development outcomes.
In an article published today online in Social Forces, professors Jessica Houston Su (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Kerri Raissian (University of Connecticut), and doctoral student Jiyeon Kim (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), used longitudinal data from a nationally representative sample of children aged 4-14 to evaluate the relationship between breastfeeding and children’s body mass index (BMI), behavioral development, and cognitive skills. They used cutting-edge statistical techniques to compare children who were breastfed to children who were never breastfed but had very similar characteristics. They also grouped children based on their likelihood of being breastfed and compared the effects of breastfeeding on child development across these different groups.
Su and colleagues found that the benefits of breastfeeding are modest and distributed unequally. They report that breastfeeding provides small benefits for children’s behavioral development, math scores, and academic ability, but only among children who were highly likely to breastfeed. In contrast, among children least likely to breastfeed, breastfeeding appeared to provide small benefits for children’s reading comprehension and vocabulary.
Su and colleagues suggest effects of breastfeeding are incredibly challenging to isolate from the costs and benefits associated with the practice. For example, breastfeeding is associated with prolonged earnings losses for mothers, and in families with fewer economic and social resources, those losses may swamp any benefits of breastfeeding for children. In contrast, mothers who have economic and social advantages are more likely to breastfeed, and this bundle of resources may already provide strong benefits for children’s development, washing out any additional benefits of breastfeeding.
Su and colleagues’ study suggests that the children most likely to benefit from breastfeeding are those with other social and economic advantages, that benefits of breastfeeding are modest, and that breastfeeding is only one of numerous biological and environmental factors that shape children’s development. As Su and colleagues summarize the takeaway: “Efforts to increase breastfeeding rates among populations that are least likely to breastfeed are unlikely to close disparities in child development…To level the playing field, rather than merely telling mothers that “breast is best,” policies should focus on reducing structural barriers and economic costs for mothers who want to breastfeed.”
Brief report: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/05/31/breastfeeding-and-child-development-brief-report/
Press release: https://sites.utexas.edu/contemporaryfamilies/2023/05/31/breastfeeding-and-child-development-press-release/
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of new and forthcoming research on gender and family-related issues via the CCF Network. To locate researchers or request copies of previous research briefs, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.
Read our blog CCF @ The Society Pages – https://thesocietypages.org/ccf/
May 31, 2023