While breastfeeding is of clear benefit to babies in terms of providing them with efficient and wholesome nutrition, the idea that it also stimulates cognitive and behavioural development does not currently enjoy robust empirical support. Nonetheless, this lack of empirical evidence hasn’t prevented some advocacy groups from continuing to make such assertions. Therefore, when I saw the headline in Monday’s Guardian – “Breastfeeding leads to better behaviour in children, researchers claim” – I immediately had a sense of foreboding.
First of all, determining the effects of breastfeeding on a child’s subsequent behavioural development is a devilishly difficult research challenge: for one thing, it is simply not the case that research methods used to establish biomedical realities (such as improved nutritional health) can be deployed in a straightforward manner to also examine behavioural outcomes (such as improved childhood behaviour). Secondly, previous studies have by and large been extremely ambiguous and often highly controversial, which does not inspire confidence. And thirdly, from a sociocultural perspective, arguments about breastfeeding seem very quickly to descend into arguments about morality and/or social class, in which bottle-feeding mothers are more or less accused of child neglect. Given these concerns, my own view is that researchers need to be extremely sure about their methods before making strong claims about non-nutritional benefits of breastfeeding. As several methodological problems plague this area of research, all of which seem to emerge again and again and again, a simple question arose. Would this study be any different? Continue reading “On your breast behaviour”