Can breastfeeding really reduce the risk of autism? Here's the truth.

“Breastfeeding could protect babies from autism, says new study,” screamed the headline earlier this week.

“Mothers who do not breastfeed their babies could be putting them at increased risk of autism,” the story began.

Wow. Way to pile guilt on mums. And not even accurate.

The German study looked at babies born with one particular gene variation that put them at increased risk for autism. This gene is involved with the release of oxytocin, and oxytocin is a hormone found in breastmilk that promotes human bonding. The study found that the longer that babies with that gene variation were breastfed, the more they were drawn to pictures of happy eyes and the less they were drawn to pictures of sad eyes. This suggested that maybe breastfeeding was helping the babies’ social development.

A lot more research needs to be done.

But... and there are some big buts...

Firstly, it only had an impact on babies born with this one particular gene variation. There are a lot of different gene variations linked to autism risk.

Secondly, the study's lead researcher, Kathleen Krol, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, said it didn't provide any evidence that breastfeeding affected a child's risk of developing autism. It didn't even provide evidence that it lessened the severity of autism symptoms.

"It could be just as likely that the emotional biases we found in seven-month-old infants will diminish later in life and have little impact on the future behavior of the child," Krol said.

An American expert in the field, Dr Ruth Milanaik, said the study was well done but caution was needed. She was concerned that some mothers of children with autism might mistakenly think they were responsible because they didn't breastfeed long enough. She said the study didn't support that.

So there you go. That's the stuff that didn't make it into most stories about the study. Anyway, there are plenty of mums out there who have exclusively breastfed, and their kids have still been diagnosed with autism.


Here's British woman Rosie King talking about how autism has affected her life. Post continues after the video...

Video via TED

It would be great if someone discovered there was one single cause of autism, and it was something that was totally preventable. That's probably why so many people found the idea of a link between vaccines and autism so appealing. Nice and simple. Wrong, though.

It seems that the more research that is done into autism, the more complex it's found to be. The latest thinking is that it results from a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors. But there are still a lot of unknowns.

Obviously, more research needs to be done. Maybe this latest German study is one piece in the puzzle. Maybe it isn't.

Parents of kids with autism are champions. They love their kids fiercely and will do whatever they can to make their lives better. They need support and understanding and accurate information. Media beat-ups like this don't help.

Do you get frustrated by stories about autism in the media?

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