A new Pediatrics study on breastfeeding and drinking alcohol claims to show that mothers’ “risky drinking” while breastfeeding is linked to lower cognitive scores in her children at ages 6-7 years old, though not at 10-11 years old. “Claim” is the key word here, however — the study shows nothing of the sort.
In fact, the authors’ conclusion that “exposing infants to alcohol through breastmilk may cause dose-dependent reductions in their cognitive abilities” is so deeply misleading and irresponsible that it falls only a wood shaving short of Pinocchio's nose.
While it’s important to ensure mothers understand the possible risks to their infant of various behaviors, it’s just as important not to unnecessarily provoke fear in often-already-anxious moms about ways they may inadvertently harm their children—or to give ammunition to the long list of folks waiting to tell moms how badly they’re doing their jobs again.
First, the study did not measure infants’ exposure to alcohol in breastmilk at all, so the authors cannot make any valid claims about infants’ exposure to alcohol through breastmilk. Second, just using the word “cause” in an observational study is so reckless that it borders on scientific negligence.
Next, the study conflates drinking “while breastfeeding” with… drinking “while breastfeeding.” If that sounds a bit confusing, consider an important quirk of the expression “while breastfeeding”: Breastfeeding is both an action and a state of being.
A “breastfeeding mother” could be a mother who is, at this precise moment, feeding her child breastmilk at her breast. Or, a “breastfeeding mother” could be a mother who is dressed to the nines at her high-powered office job while her child is at daycare, but who pumps at work and will breastfeed her child at her breast when she gets home later that day (or who may feed her child pumped milk in a bottle). This seemingly minor linguistic idiosyncrasy is at the heart of why this new study’s conclusions, as presented, are little more than another handy cudgel ready for shaming women.
That’s because the study did not measure drinking alcohol just before or in the midst of the actual act of a feeding a child breastmilk at the breast. Rather, the study only measured drinking habits in mothers who also happened to have breastfed their child during or around that same general time period in their lives as they were consuming alcohol.
Here’s what the new Pediatrics study actually found: Children who have ever been breastfed and whose mothers have “risky drinking habits” in general are more likely to have slightly lower cognitive scores on one reasoning test at 6-7 years old. But their scores aren’t any different on a vocabulary or an early literacy/math skills test, and there’s no difference in their scores at all when they’re 10-11 years old.
If anything, this new study’s findings should reassure breastfeeding moms who also drink alcohol — except they’re likely to hear a barrage of misplaced judgment this week from people who haven’t read the study or who only read articles by people who haven’t adequately read the study.