In the run-up to my son’s birth a couple of months ago, I spent a lot of time sitting in my midwife’s office staring aimlessly at the posters on the wall. My favorite one depicted two scoops of ice cream with cherries on top, strategically set to look like breasts. The caption underneath suggested that exclusive breastfeeding for six months would lower a child’s risk of obesity. Presumably the implication was that if you chose to breastfeed, your child could later eat ice cream with impunity.
It was a great visual, and given the current rate of obesity in the United States, a compelling argument. The only trouble is that there is no good reason to think it is correct. The one high-quality randomized controlled trial of breast-feeding did not show any impacts on childhood obesity.
Of course, it’s not just childhood obesity. The purported benefits of nursing (here is one list from the California Department of Public Health) extend to better mother-infant bonding, lower infant mortality, fewer infections in infancy, higher IQ, higher wages in adulthood, less cancer and on and on. If one takes the claims seriously, it is not difficult to conclude that breastfed babies are all thin, rich geniuses who love their mothers and are never sick a day in their lives while formula-fed babies become overweight, low-IQ adults who hate their parents and spend most of their lives in the hospital.