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Risks of Not Breastfeeding: Not What You Think

I promised a mother of one of my patients that I would post this. No mother deserves to be shamed for how she chooses to feed her child. So here’s some of the information I regularly share with parents.

Breastfeeding is great. But it might not work for you. Before you beat yourself up about not breastfeeding and all of the health benefits if you had, you need to know some numbers.

In case you’re not a statistics nerd: Number Needed to Treat (NNT) is the number of people that need to receive an intervention (in this case, breastfeeding) in order to prevent the outcome you’re worried about. So, 3 children would have to be breastfed in order to prevent one child from getting ear infections in the first 2 years of life. In other words, 1 out of 3 breastfed children benefits from breastfeeding because it prevents them from getting ear infections. Pretty good, right?

But, if you’ve been pushing yourself to breastfeed because it might prevent asthma, you should know that the NNT is about 76. So breastfeeding will prevent asthma in about 1.3% of breastfed kids. For SIDS, it’s one in 3500, or 0.0029% of breastfed kids who will be saved from SIDS because they breastfed.

What’s the point?

Breastfeeding is the ideal for many parents. But before you decide how to feed your child, you deserve to know the real numbers behind those recommendations so that you can make an informed decision about what’s best for you and your baby. I want mothers to breastfeed when they can. But, over-stating the benefits is dishonest and coercive. Decide for yourself and be proud of however you choose to feed your kids. My staff and I support you 100% and are prepared to help you, no matter what you choose.

Reference: Wilson JL, Wilson BH. Is the “breast is best” mantra an oversimplification? J Fam Pract. 2018 Jun;67(6)

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