Monday, April 5, 2010

Study: Lack of Breastfeeding Costs Lives, Billions of Dollars

A new study says that 900 babies and billions of dollars could be saved every year if 90% of mothers in the US were to breastfeed. The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics and appeared online today, analyzed the prevalence of 10 common childhood illnesses and the costs of treating these diseases, which can include hospitalization. According to an economist's calculation, the US could save $13 billion per year if we could raise breastfeeding rates. It can be argued that this estimate, astounding as it is, could even be considered conservative because the study only took into account the "gold standard" of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. We know that breastfeeding continues to provide health benefits for babies (and mom!) well beyond the first 6 months and into toddlerhood if the baby is fortunate enough to nurse for that long.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Melissa Bartick, says that breastfeeding is a public health issue and I think it's obvious that this is true. For so long, whether or not to breastfeed has been couched as a "parenting choice," a message reinforced by the formula companies. Infant formula marketing has been usurping the feminist ideal of choice for forever, as if deciding to use formula was akin to picking the safari print over the froggies for the nursery. If anything, says Dr. Bartick, the benefits of breastfeeding have been underappreciated and hopefully this research study and the coverage it's been getting will finally hammer that point home.

Some people will continue to deny the importance of breastfeeding, though, and of course the detractors are already speaking up. One of those people is Dr. Lillian Beard, who like Hannah Rosin, wants us to instead focus on the "costs" of breastfeeding. She spoke to ABC News and is quoted as saying, "The biggest barrier to mothers continuing to breastfeed seems to be the fact that more mothers are in the workplace. It's a very impressive number," she said of the $13 billion estimate, "but I want to know: Did the study take into account the cost for breastfeeding mothers?"

Oh, yes, THAT's what's important here, right? The relative cost to breastfeeding mothers, not the lives that could be saved or the billions that could be put to better use?  "I think this report puts an unfair slant on it," Beard said. "It's not taking into account that for almost two thirds of U.S. families, women are either the co-breadwinner or the breadwinner. Returning to work is germane for the survival of the family."

While I agree that returning to work is definitely a huge barrier to breastfeeding, I also think that hospital supplementation with formula and formula freebies play a huge role as well. For an excellent analysis and break down of the fallacies of the ABC article, please read this blog post by Bettina of Best for Babes.

Funny that Dr. Beard didn't mention these things, right? A quick Google search shows that maybe Dr. Beard has more of a stake in this issue than she'd like to admit. See, Dr. Beard is a member of the "Nestle Family"! She serves on their board and answers questions about infant nutrition for their Nestle and Gerber web sites. This is a woman who has been quoted as saying that Nestle's infant formula is almost as digestible as breast milk. I wonder why ABC left that part out? She's credited as a professor at both George Washington University and Howard University, no mention of Nestle.

If you want to try and spin the story into something else, at least speak to someone who can even pretend to be neutral. At this point, I'd prefer to hear from Hannah Rosin again. At least she doesn't profit off of the sale of infant formula and doesn't have "M.D." at the end of her name.

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