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Are Breast-Feeding Perks Exaggerated? New Study Says Yes

Breast-feeding benefits may be exaggerated, study says
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

We've been hearing "breast is best" for years now, and the argument usually comes along with a laundry list of utterly amazing perks that are hard to compete with. It's cancer-saving! It makes your kid smarter! It saves billions of dollars a year!

While no one can deny the fact that breast-feeding is incredibly beneficial, the "breast is best" debate has always left formula-feeding moms—and in particular, those who simply couldn't breast-feed their babies—feeling ... well, kind of terrible.

But a new study may bring some peace of mind for all the moms out there who have agonized (or are still agonizing) over their decision to formula-feed. According to experts, it seems that many of those highly touted breast-feeding perks may be slightly exaggerated after all.

The new research, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at siblings within the same family who were fed differently as babies—something that's never been done before.

"Many previous studies suffer from selection bias," says Cynthia Colen, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at Ohio State University. "They either do not or cannot statistically control for factors such as race, age, family income, mother's employment—things we know that can affect breast-feeding and health outcomes."

So to take a more accurate look, experts analyzed 8,000 kids between the ages of 4 and 14, which is unique, considering most breast-feeding studies have only looked at the impact it has on kids during those first few years. Of those 8,000 kids, 25 percent were what the experts call "discordant sibling pairs." (In other words, one was breast-fed while the other was bottle-fed.) Colen and her colleagues then looked at differences in things like BMI, intelligence, hyperactivity and even parental attachment.

Their findings? When comparing children from different families, breast-fed kids definitely fared better. But here's the catch: those who breast-fed were also more likely to have more advantages from the get-go. In particular, breast-feeding moms were wealthier and better educated, which no doubt had its own impacts on the success of their children.

As for those discordant pairs of siblings, experts couldn't really find big differences on performance in any of the areas they analyzed—except when it came to asthma. Interestingly, kids who were breast-fed were at a higher risk for developing asthma than their siblings who drank formula.

Colen is quick to point out that the study's findings don't discredit all of the good that breast-feeding clearly does, but it certainly lifts the stigma on formula-feeding.

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

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