Married to Medicine

Married to Medicine

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

No, breastfeeding my children did not prevent them from developing childhood leukemia. But that sure would be nice.


I just have to point this out because it is a classic, **classic** example of how the "benefits" of breastfeeding get exaggerated.  As my readers know, I exclusively breastfed both of my children until they self-weaned.  We used pumped milk in bottles only a handful of times ever, and I was just lucky my kids even took bottles on those occasions.  But knowledge is power and I'm all for empowering women.  And a lack of true knowledge about breast-feeding can and does cause severe feelings of guilt and inadequacy in moms who aren't able to swing it.  Because of things like this...

Earlier today, an article came across my AAP SmartBrief, "Study:  Breastfed Children Have Slightly Lower Risk of Childhood Leukemia."  As with all things statistical, there were many ways to present the findings.  As with all things media, the most dramatic way was the one up front:

"Now a new analysis finds that breastfed babies also have a 14% to 19% lower risk of pediatric leukemia, the most common childhood cancer."

Wow, that sounds significant doesn't it?  I mean, 14% and 19%, that's huge, right?  Not so much.  Later in the article a more accurate description is provided:

"If the study's conclusions are correct, breastfeeding would decrease a child's risk of leukemia from 0.005% to 0.004%, Brown said."

Now, don't get me wrong.  As a parent, I'm all for reducing risk - even risk so minuscule as to be negligible.  But here's the kicker - even if the human mind could wrap itself around the difference between .004% and .005% - which it can't - this study now making the internet rounds did not control for a single socioeconomic or environmental factor!  Literally NOT ONE (you can read a more thorough analysis here)!!!!!  And it goes (or should go) without saying that socioeconomic factors are highly confounding in any discussion of breast-feeding benefits because women with better resources are more likely to succeed with breastfeeding (and less likely to smoke... and more likely to read to their children... it is truly endless).  I can get you citations on that, or you can watch some Teen Mom.

On top of that - if we can even reach any higher to pile on one more thing - childhood leukemia has already been tied to socioeconomic factors.  Check out this study showing a higher risk for children who's fathers smoke or have high-risk jobs.  So a study that failed to control for such factors, and then found a whopping .001% benefit for breastfeeding, is simply not worth giving a second glance.  And any "professional" passing off this study as legitimate or noteworthy is - ironically - lacking in knowledge of her field.

So please everybody, let's stop with the exaggeration already.  I like a pat on the back just as much as the next person... but not when it comes at the expense of some mom out there struggling so hard to nurse her baby and failing, and thinking she's increasing his chance of childhood cancer.  Or worse:  The mothers out there who weren't able to breastfeed, who's children did develop childhood leukemia, and who are now sick with a guilt there is absolutely no basis for them to feel.

I would give anything to prevent him from developing childhood cancer.  Who wouldn't?
But alas, I had to settle for mild respiratory infections (read:  colds) and GI bugs.


  1. Nice work looking beyond the headlines!

  2. People are still getting away with publishing breastfeeding studies that make no effort to control for socioeconomic or other health confounders? If I knew who reviewed that, I'd have a thing or two to say...