Could 6 Months of the Boob Save Lives?

Robin Marty

A new study says breastfeeding for 6 months saves lives and medical expenses.  Is it missing other issues?

Since the days of La Leche and “Breast is Best” campaigns, women have been told repeatedly that breastfeeding an infant can give him or her a better start in life.  But a new study from the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts presents the idea that breast feeding could in fact save lives, as well as a great deal of money in medical costs.

Each year, more than 900 preventable child deaths occur in the United States because too few mothers follow breast-feeding recommendations, a new study has found.

Child health problems associated with poor breast-feeding compliance cost the country $13 billion a year in direct health-care costs and indirect costs, such as missed time from work, according to the researchers at Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts.

Of the 911 deaths per year cited in the report, 95 percent were infants and resulted from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), lower respiratory tract infections

(such as pneumonia), and necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a disease that occurs primarily in preterm infants.

The study was published online April 5 in the journal Pediatrics.

According to the study, breastfeeding reduces the risks of many potentially fatal illnesses, many of which are common in pre-term babies.  But is the study finding that these ill children are worse off because they do not breastfeed? Or are these children not breastfeeding because they are already compromised?

Many of the illnesses identified above are associated with pre-term birth, which is associated with a host of respiratory issues.  Many of these issues also make it more difficult for a baby to feed via the breast.  Although mothers can begin pumping breast milk, it can be much more difficult to bring up a sufficient and sustainable milk supply using just a pump.  This study also appears to assume that there were no factors during labor that may have stalled the arrival of the milk supply.  And of course, the stress of an ill child can also cause milk supply issues.

Breast feeding is of course an excellent way to help a baby start out and should be encouraged and supported as much as possible.  However, studies that try to correlate lack of breastfeeding with an increased rate of infant mortality may do little more than precipitate guilt in women who may not be able to breastfeed due to health or other issues.  We should be able to find a way to encourage breast feeding through education, better family leave plans and office flexibility, or better postpartum care, rather than using scare tactics.

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