Breastfed Babies are “More challenging”?

Unless you live under a rock, it would have been hard to miss the news today…. breastfed babies cry more than bottle fed babies… they haveĀ “more challenging temperaments”. Really? Where are these headlines coming from?

A recent piece of research from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit has found that breastfed babies are perceived to be more “irritable” or “challenging” than their formula fed peers, by their parents. The researchers have been quick to state that this is actually normal, that babies cry for reasons other than hunger, that formula fed babies are essentially overfed (dare I say, sedated?) and that parents should adjust their expectations of normal infant behaviour, doing so may result in more mums breastfeeding for longer.

The “by their parents” bit highlighted above is the single most important aspect of this research. This was not a robust scientific study, it was a survey of just 316 parents, so for starters it isn’t a large enough study to be statistically relevant. Secondly, parents are not impartial, we all love our babies very much, but our perspective is coloured by that. It is also coloured by our expectations and a whole myriad of feelings.

Most mums in the UK initiate breastfeeding, but by four months only 7% of UK infants are exclusively breastfed. One of the often sited reasons mums give for stopping breastfeeding, or introducing some formula feeds (mixed feeding), is that breast milk alone didn’t satisfy their babies. There are various reasons that parents might believe this, despite evidence to the contrary, one of which may be cultural expectations of infant behaviour. This is what the conclusions of this study are getting at. Formula feeding has become so common in our society, along with detached parenting techniques, that our perceptions of how babies should behave are completely warped. We think they should sleep through the night, feed every four hours, be content to be left alone, or with people other than their mothers for extended periods of time and basically be seen and not heard.

How many well-meaning friends and relatives suggest a bottle in order to settle a restless baby? How little faith in their own bodies do many mothers have?

Formula fed babies may go longer between feeds (because formula is harder to digest and therefore artificially fills babies up for longer), add dummies and controlled crying into the mix and you have very young babies who are essentially trained not to bother crying for their mothers. Obviously there are many parents who formula feed on demand, rather than to a schedule, and who are very attached to their babies, I’m simply intending to highlight other variables that may be contributing factors to the behaviour reported by the parents in this survey.

Also, if as a culture we expect formula fed babies to be more satisfied than breastfed ones, and if we have huge numbers of mothers who ceased exclusive breastfeeding for the very reason that they wanted their babies to be more satisfied, then when we ask them a series of questions how likely is it that they will give the answers they expect to be giving? How many mums who have niggling regrets about introducing formula might defend their decision by stating that their baby is perfectly content, thank you very much?

I don’t mean to say that the respondents to this survey consciously lied, but their answers are very likely to be the product of their experiences and expectations.

The survey was also conducted among parents of three month old babies. I wonder how many of the breastfeeding mums were in the midst of growth spurts and teething, approaching the four month sleep regression and generally feeling the effects of life with a tiny baby who is so reliant on their mother alone to fulfil their dietary needs, with very little support from their family or peers. Their feelings almost certainly coloured their responses too.

The discussions rampaging around the internet today demonstrate clearly the number of breastfeeding mothers who feel that their babies were perfectly content and hardly ever cried because they were able to meet their needs quickly, both nutritional and comfort needs, with the breast. These mums, in the circles I tend to move in, are well supported, determined, knowledgeable and tend to follow attached parenting ideals. They are not “typical” mums in our society, but they demonstrate, again, another set of variables that might suggest that breastfeeding could be a heck of a lot easier than the respondents of this survey have found it.

As with all scientific research, we also have to consider who has conducted it and any other interests they may have. I haven’t been able to substantiate this, but one comment on a Facebook thread that I saw this morning, suggested that this piece of research was funded by a board of over 20 interested parties, some of whom, you can bet, have financial interests in the formula and baby food industry. If this is true then we do need to take a very deep breath before taking the conclusions of the study seriously, despite the insistence of the researchers that this evidence is good news for breastfeeding.

I think we need to take this research with a rather large pinch of salt.

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