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Is Breast-feeding Truly Best?

Exception or Rule?

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If you're expecting a baby you've undoubtedly heard that "breast is best." Breast-fed babies are healthier. They are less likely to have diarrhea, suffer from ear infections, develop allergies. They have better immune systems, better protection against SIDS, and are less likely to need braces, become obese, or develop certain childhood cancers. They are even smarter. Approximately 13,000 studies document these and other benefits of breast-feeding.

But Diane Wiessinger, an internationally board certified lactation consultant in upstate New York, argues that these statements are actually wrong. When we say breast-fed babies are healthier, to whom are we comparing them? To formula-fed babies, of course. But although formula feeding may be the cultural norm, it is clearly not the biological norm.

Think about it. Everyone knows the risks of smoking and obesity. People who smoke are more likely to develop lung cancer. People who are obese are more likely to suffer from heart disease and diabetes. But more likely than whom? Than non-smokers and people of normal weight. In both of these examples, the biological norm is the basis for comparison. The researchers who design the studies always take non-smokers and people of normal weight as the control groups.

But this isn't the case with breastfeeding. Here, for example, is a paragraph I came across recently in an issue of a popular parenting magazine: "If someone told you there's an elixir that could help protect your new baby from bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhea and urinary tract infections, would you want to know more? If you knew that the effects of this concoction would last into your child's teenage years, reducing his risk for diabetes, allergies and high blood pressure, would you just have to have it? If the same potion might boost his IQ, wouldn't you rush out to find it as soon as you could?"

What if the same paragraph were written comparing formula-fed infants to breast-fed infants? It might read something like this: "If someone told you there's a concoction that would reduce your baby's protection from bronchitis, ear infections, pneumonia, diarrhea and urinary tract infections, would you want to know more? If you knew that the effects of this mixture would last into your child's teenage years, increasing his risk for diabetes, allergies and high blood pressure, would you insist on avoiding it? If the same potion might lower his IQ, wouldn't you stay away from it, if at all possible?"

To be sure, the message sounds more severe. And this is exactly what health care providers, magazine editors and formula manufacturers want to avoid.

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