Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I am a callous person

CHICAGO — The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women fed their babies breast milk only for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says.

Those startling results, published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, are only an estimate. But several experts who reviewed the analysis said the methods and conclusions seem sound....

The $13 billion in estimated losses due to the low breast-feeding rate includes an economists' calculation partly based on lost potential lifetime wages — $10.56 million per death.
Okay. Assuming that these estimates are all correct -- and why not? -- there's a rather important point here: you could eliminate 900 deaths a year, and add $13 billion to the US economy, and nobody save the grieving parents would ever notice.

For example: even in a low-growth post-recessionary period, when the US GDP increases say, 1% a year, that still amounts to $140 billion a year, or ten times the estimated benefits of universal breastfeeding.

During "normal" times, when the economy grows at 4-5%, well, you do the math.

I'm not a pediatrician by any means, but the benefits of breastfeeding are pretty hotly contested. If the best estimate says that a country of 300 million might save as many as 900 lives every year by universal breastfeeding, I kind of wonder what's the point. You could save more lives by enforcing drunk driving laws more rigorously.


Anonymous said...

It is a bad conclusion. On its own, it means little. (One quibble, the benefits of breast-feeding are not hotly contested, they're well established. And new info is coming out all the time.)

When you add in that conclusion with other results, the benefits become more obvious.

Average mental acuity of breastfed children has been shown to be higher than formula fed. Apparently breastfed babies may grow up better adjusted too.

But from a health standpoint, there are indications that formula fed babies have higher incidences of Type 1 diabetes. Now THAT is a significant cost to families and society.

celestialspeedster said...

I am pretty fed up with the current militant advocacy of breast feeding, which I take personally despite never having had a child. Friends who have given birth in hospitals have spoken of feeling pressured into breast feeding, and manhandled into doing so, as was the case when a nurse grabbed a friend's breast without warning to 'demonstrate'. And when friends have objected to or could not breast feed, they were made to feel guilty.
Why don't these experts put some of that energy into making the lives of new mothers easier (ie government funded child care, home nurse support) rather than adding something else to worry about?

Anonymous said...

Why don't these experts put some of that energy into making the lives of new mothers easier (i.e. government funded child care, home nurse support) rather than adding something else to worry about?

Because science and research don't work that way. The purpose of scientific study is to improve our understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in.

If people in power or individuals make policies or decisions based on that, that is their choice. But we shouldn't stop seeking to improve our understanding of our world just because the information is poorly applied or makes people uncomfortable.

Paul said...

John, in what ways are the benefits of breastfeeding 'hotly contested'? I was under the impression that breast milk is considered superior to formula in pretty much every category. I've probably self-selected out the hot contests, so... what are they?

john said...

Paul: What I've read doesn't question that breastfeeding is superior, but rather the degree. Whether, for example, the benefits are sufficient to justify the stress that mothers go through to breastfeed for 6 months to 1 year that is often argued.

The problem is that breastfeeding has a lot of real costs for the mothers involved, that too often are basically waved away (including in this survey) as basically marginal.

And studies showing marginal changes in the health outcomes of breast v. formula shouldn't be ignored, but shouldn't be over-counted either. The vast majority of babies are only partially breast-fed, so if the worst predictions of formula feeding were true, the baby boomers would have been a generation of obese morons.

Frankly, television and HFCS are better explanations, Occam's razor-wise.

I'd analogize it to the argument over male circumcision which has real but very limited health benefits, but is nevertheless wrapped up in a bunch of cultural and gender ideas that complicate the debate.

Paul said...

Ah, that jives better with what I've read. The phrasing you used was reminiscent of classic denier language, which was confusing after several years of reading your blog.

As for the rest, I'm always amused by the contortions needed to wring opportunity costs from the free services our bodies provide. "Breastfeeding is stressful," so buying canisters of formula is the solution. This is similar to, "Biking/walking is dangerous," so get a gym membership and drive everywhere! "Eating right is complicated," so join a weight loss program! Don't do that thing, because I've got some shit to sell you!

In short: why reap the benefits of using our bodies the way they were designed, when we can leverage the many services an energy-rich society can provide? I'm probably simplifying things a bit, but hell, I'm so damned tired of being told how complicated life needs to be.