18 Mar

The value of breastfeeding in pounds, pence, and Brazilian dollars

This morning we are hearing on the news about a study from Brazil that demonstrates an economic value to breastfeeding, evidenced through measuring IQ, educational attainment, and income at the age of 30. It’s a fascinating study with a large cohort, followed up over 30 years, and of course it is causing the usual furore.

Here is the paper in full: Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age and I would recommend actually reading it before you commence your ranting, since I have seen on social media this morning so many straw man arguments standing up against it.

This research set out to examine the claim that “breastfeeding can also increase individual income, and thus contribute to economic productivity,” as previous studies have not demonstrated this. Inevitably detractors will argue that there is more to life than economic productivity, with which I would certainly agree. However the value of a study like this is in providing evidence of a real economic value to breastfeeding, which could sway policy makers into increasing funding for breastfeeding support and education. We already have plenty of evidence that breastfeeding rates would increase if effective support was more widely accessible; surely some fund-holding decision maker somewhere can join the dots?

What this research does not set out to do, is to judge individual women for their feeding decisions. And yet that is the strongest reaction I have seen today: this kind of report makes women feel guilty. Self-appointed and unqualified “expert” Clare Byam-Cook called the research controversial on TV this morning. The controversy is in this kind of response to it, not in the research itself. The research does not say that you are a bad parent if you don’t breastfeed, and it does acknowledge the many other factors in both nature and nurture that contribute to the outcomes measured – but the researchers did control these variables quite thoroughly and still demonstrated a correlation.

As a breastfeeding support worker who scrapes a living and works mostly in a voluntary capacity, I appreciate anything that might influence future policy making, and I rail against society-imposed guilt imposed on individual mothers who make hard decisions in difficult circumstances, when effective support has not been available to them.