Does Breastfeeding Really Save Lives?

When I read on CNN's website that more than 900 infant lives could be saved each year simply by breastfeeding, I was stunned.

When I read on CNN’s website that more than 900 infant lives could be saved each year simply by breastfeeding, I was stunned. Yes, I know that breastfeeding is considered optimal. I just didn’t know that not breastfeeding caused infant death — or so it would seem when one peruses the various websites reporting on the recently published study in Pediatrics.

I don’t know how many guilt-ridden mothers bothered to go to the study for additional information, but I did. And here’s what I found: incredibly misleading statistics.

The presumption that infant lives could be saved by breastfeeding was based on risk ratios. And the reported annual cost of $13 billion dollars was tied to these infant deaths. The way that this paper is worded leads the lay reader to believe that breastfeeding isn’t just optimal, it’s necessary to save lives and money, and nobody actually knows that this is the case.

In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that it’s not the case. Because I’ve never seen reported the number of infant deaths directly attributed to not breastfeeding. I doubt the number exists.

There are statistics, and then there are damned statistics. These fall in the latter category.

If it sounds like I take offense to this kind of reporting, well, it’s because I do. I look at this study as one in a long line of mushy arguments for breastfeeding in a world that doesn’t support it. Women can and do bottle feed their babies and raise healthy children, and yet this kind of reporting has spawned a similar kind of irrational, vigilante movement as the “home-birthers” and the anti-vaccination brigade. New mothers are bombarded from every angle with pressure to breastfeed at a time when they are returning to work earlier than ever before and personally juggling more responsibilities than ever before. Even when there’s a will, often there’s just not a way.

So, I’m appealing to pediatricians to comfort the unglued mother who is juggling home, marriage, work, a newborn, and mastitis: tell her that the world will not end if she doesn’t breastfeed. Yes, breast milk is best. But if it becomes too much of a burden, she can bottle feed without fear that her baby will come to harm or die — regardless of what she has read on CNN.