From the New Scientist: Why Overzealous Breastfeeding Advice Can Be Bad for Babies

9 March 2017

Feed me! Christine Henke/plainpicture

“Breast is best”. This well-known slogan is meant to convey that babies should be fed exclusively with breast milk. The mantra is so ubiquitous it is widely assumed to be uncontroversial – even though many of the tenets of breastfeeding ideology are in fact contested.

While few would deny that breast milk has some health benefits over formula milk – including protection against infections such as diarrhoea – there is debate about their extent, and how they should be weighed against the mother’s well-being if breastfeeding goes badly, not to mention her right to do as she wishes with her own body.

Now there is another cause for concern: breastfeeding can sometimes have downsides for babies. It is becoming clear that an excessive focus on breastfeeding at all costs in the first few days after birth can have tragic consequences. “I never imagined that anything like this would exist in medicine,” says Christie del Castillo-Hegyi, a doctor whose baby son became dehydrated after she struggled to produce milk but was discouraged in hospital from supplementing with formula, lest it get in the way of breastfeeding. She believes neonatal dehydration was a factor in his later diagnosis with a seizure disorder. “It goes against all the medical principles of ‘First do no harm’,” she says.