If you’ve ever breastfed a child, then you’ve likely found yourself on the receiving end of some well-intentioned advice. Really anyone with kids, regardless of how they fed them, has experienced this. But for some reason, breastfeeding seems to really bring out the best/worst in people. One of the biggest debates that exists in the breastfeeding world is whether or not drinking alcohol while breastfeeding is considered safe. Depending on who you ask, it’s either fine in moderation or absolutely forbidden. A new study seems to put it strictly in the not safe category, which has everyone talking. But how reliable is the study? And how much should we trust research about drinking alcohol while breastfeeding, when the researchers involved didn’t seem to actually measure alcohol in breast milk?
The study in question says moms should refrain from drinking alcohol while breastfeeding. It posits some pretty worrisome evidence to back up their assertion.
Published in the journal Pediatrics, the data from the study showed that children may have cognitive deficits between the ages of 6-7 if their mothers drank alcohol while breastfeeding. Researchers collected data from more than 5,000 Australian infants starting in 2004. They were tested on vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning, and cognitive processing every two years until the age of 12. To determine the drinking habits of the mothers, the women completed a 10-question survey.
The data put forth by the researchers showed that kids whose mothers were considered “risky” drinkers exhibited cognitive delays at around age 6-7. But, those delays seemed to go away by age 10-11. The data, taken at face value, is obviously concerning.
Researchers concluded that “exposing infants to alcohol through breast milk may cause dose-dependent reductions in their cognitive abilities”. But is that really what the data showed? Turns out, maybe not.
In a brilliant take-down of the study, Tara Haelle dissects all of the issues with this particular study. And there are many. For starters, while researchers conflated lower cognitive scores with maternal alcohol consumption during breastfeeding, they didn’t actually … test any of the breast milk. For a study to make such a sweeping and damning proclamation, you’d think they would have at least tested the BAC of the breast milk being consumed. Right? According to Haelle, “the study did not measure infants’ exposure to alcohol in breast milk at all, so the authors cannot make any valid claims about infants’ exposure to alcohol through breast milk”. The authors of the study actually wrote, “The frequency and quantity of milk consumed by infants was not recorded, nor was the timing of alcohol consumption or the amount of ethanol in breast milk.”
In other words, researchers collected data about kids who were breastfed, and they collected data about the mother’s drinking habits. But the problem is, they didn’t actually measure drinking right before or during the act of breastfeeding. They only collected data on drinking habits.
As any nursing mother will tell you, contrary to popular belief, you do actually get breaks from breastfeeding. So while a mother who responded to the study might have answered in the affirmative on the drinking habits study, it didn’t necessarily mean they were actively drinking WHILE breastfeeding their infants.
And therein lies another problem with the study, according to Haelle. The language used is very problematic.
“While breastfeeding” is incredibly misleading. I nursed both of my children for three years each. During that entire period of time, I would have referred to myself as a breastfeeding mother. I was not actively breastfeeding for three straight years, a couple of years apart. Had you asked me if I drank during the time I was a “breastfeeding mother”, I would have answered yes. Shockingly, Haelle points out that researchers did not inquire about drinking habits during active periods of nursing. She says, “The researchers did not ask mothers whether they drink alcohol at the same time or shortly before they breastfed. In fact, if the researchers asked mothers whether they’d ever breastfed right after drinking alcohol, those answers aren’t in the study”.
Based on the correlation between mothers with risky drinking habits and decreased cognitive scores in children who were breastfed, researchers concluded that the scores were associated with alcohol intake.
However, as with other parts of the study, the conclusion is overreaching. Haella points out that while researchers made statistical adjustments for household income, duration of breastfeeding, maternal education, and other factors, they fell short in adjusting for factors that greatly impact differences between formula families and breastfeeding families. The demographic adjustments fail to really delve into all the ways that these two groups differ. Mainly, how those differences can impact child development (or cognitive scores, as it were).
There isn’t a lot of research out there about drinking alcohol while breastfeeding. And there needs to be! When a study like this comes out, it’s easy to sound the alarm without asking some pretty tough questions. A study like this will be used to shame mothers. We really need to be asking those questions.