Many mothers who breast-feed have been alarmed and perplexed by reports regarding toxins discovered in breast milk. But a review of data from several studies has found that the benefits of breast-feeding far outweigh these potential risks.
Researchers reviewed data from three studies, among them a Dutch study of 418 infants and mothers, half of whom breast-fed and half of whom used formula; a smaller Dutch study of 38 mothers that assessed the impact of different levels of dioxin exposure; and a German study of 232 mothers and babies who had been exposed to dioxin before birth.
The studies noted minor differences among the exposed babies, such as higher levels of thyroid hormones and lower blood platelet counts, compared to infants who were not exposed to dioxins. But the researchers said these differences did not appear to have any impact on the children’s health and development, and they emphasized that the measures were not abnormal.
At the same time, breast-fed babies scored significantly higher than formula-fed babies on tests of mental development when they were seven months old and again at 18 months, according to the Dutch study.
The review was published in the current issue of Breastfeeding Medicine.
“We are not in a situation where we have to tell people that breast-feeding is going to be a problem. There is no evidence for that — just the contrary,” said Dr. Cheston M. Berlin, an author of the study and a professor of pediatrics and pharmacology at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Penn.
“Breast milk is the best nutritional source for newborn babies up to one year because of its unique composition,” he added.
The journal’s editor, Dr. Ruth Lawrence, said the review was important because many women may have been taken aback by news reports saying that breast milk can be contaminated with chemical pollutants.
“When agencies like the E.P.A. decided to monitor the presence of toxins in the environment through breast milk, people like me said, ’Please don’t do that — it will be misinterpreted’,” Dr. Lawrence said. She noted that there is also a risk of contamination when using baby formula mixed with tap water.
“Babies have to eat,” said Judy LaKind, a risk-assessment specialist and another of the paper’s authors. “What’s consistently been found is that breast-fed babies seem to do better on any number of health-related measures, and that’s been shown over and over again.”