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Hooray for boobies?

February 14th, 2007

Dr Petra

Okay, it’s Valentine’s Day so let’s talk about tits.

After all the papers are all at it.

Although perhaps not in the sexy way you were expecting.

No, today we’re all being told that breast is definitely best since a longitudinal study of children born in the 1920s-1930s has shown those who were breast fed were more likely to move up at least ‘one social class’ than those who were bottle fed. The longer a child was breastfed for, the better their chance of social mobility.

This research was press released ahead of publication in that well-known journal Archives of Diseases of Childhood (nothing to do with getting some boob coverage on Valentine’s day, surely?!). Data was based on the Boyd Orr longitudinal study that followed up 1,414 people since birth. The press release states those studied were from 16 urban and rural areas across England and Scotland.

Prevalence of breastfeeding was found to vary from 45-85% in different areas, and the average number of babies being breastfed from birth was 70%. There were few differences between working and middle class families in terms of breastfeeding activity. Babies who were fed from between six and thirteen months were about 53% more likely to move up a social class.

The report authors claim that because the research began before there were wider class differences in breastfeeding that we seen now (where middle class mums are far more likely to breastfeed for longer) this suggests (to the researchers) that social mobility was based on something other than class.

Media coverage has been extensive and most of it has wrongly explained the study as a survey (it seems this is the only research term journalists have heard of). Most coverage has also not asked that many questions about this research or its claims.

Let’s do that now.

Whilst this study appears to show little difference between social classes in terms of breastfeeding newborns it is likely that middle class mothers in the 1930s were better able to breastfeed their babies for longer because they did not have to go back to work. A working class woman working in a factory, farming or in service would have had to work but would not have been able to take her baby with her, or if she did may not have been able to feed on the job. Working class women were also likely to have a bigger family due to a lack of access to contraception, so had many children to attend to (leaving less time for feeding). Poor nutrition would also result in reduced milk supplies. At the same time it was not unheard of for middle class women to have home help (so they could relax more between feeds) or even have a wet nurse to feed their babies for them. The study should have revealed when babies were fed breast milk exactly whose milk were they getting?

The researchers are claiming that breast feeding babies over time improved their nutrition and as a result their neurological development, which in turn made them more intelligent and that allowed them to move up the social ladder.

However the jury is still out on this theory. Although babies that are breast fed for six months or more tend to do better in terms of health, education and achievement than their peers, babies in this group are much more likely to come from a middle class family. This means that middle class parents (even if they are not particularly affluent) will have time to spend enriching their child and ensuring their child gets opportunities that other parents may not be able to provide – no matter how they long to do so. If you measure ‘intelligence’ as getting a good job or being socially mobile (and I don’t think I do) then you could argue that being breastfed caused this. Or you could interpret this effect as being related to being given a lot of opportunities and support – of which lengthy breastfeeding was just one bonus.

Within the media, most coverage has used this research to state two things
- breastfeeding is best
- breastfeeding will make your baby more intelligent
Now I think most of us will agree that breastfeeding is better for a baby and also enable bonding between mum and child. But there is a problem for many women when breast feeding isn’t an option since coverage like this makes them feel guilty as they’re being made out as neglecting their baby’s well-being, intellect and future chances.

Some women take to breastfeeding like a duck to water. Some are lucky to live in an area where a breastfeeding support worker can come and visit them and help them learn to feed (after all it doesn’t often come naturally to mum or babe). If they’re luckier still they’ll get on with their gran, mum or mum-in-law who’ll be able to show them how to feed. This is less likely currently since many women in the 1950s through to the 1970s were encouraged not to breastfeed at all since the medical view at that time was formula was quicker, easier and more nutritious. So your mum may not know how to show you how to feed.

Pressure to breast feed in some countries is having a negative effect too. In the developing world where breast feeding is common, mums who are HIV positive have a good chance of ensuring their baby doesn’t get HIV if they don’t breast feed. They’ll be trained to use a bottle correctly (ensuring they don’t use contaminated water) before they go home. However when they go home female relatives (who may not even know they’re positive) will put pressure on them to breastfeed. As a result many babies are infected with HIV unnecessarily.

In the UK we have to face this situation less often, but the pressure to breastfeed makes women who can’t feel like they are stupid, have failed, are bad mums or are unnatural.

The authors of this research appear to have overlooked women’s history and issues of class division. They also seem to have ignored the widespread social changes that happened after World War Two when social mobility became easier and rigid class divisions relaxed. However, the study has been released before publication that is always a problem since we’ve only the press release to go on – and not the study itself (which may well address the concerns I have).

But to get back to the media coverage, breastfeeding is only a wonderful, bonding experience if you have the confidence, time, skills and support to do so. In short it’s still a middle class luxury. As it was in the 1930s.

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