“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.
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.