A new Israeli study making the rounds of the internet is claiming that exclusive breastfeeding, instead of preventing allergies as has been shown by numerous studies, actually increases the risk for dairy allergy. The researchers conclude that parents should give cow’s milk in the early days and weeks of life, ignoring long-time recommendations by the World Health Organization and other medical bodies.
Dr. Yitzhak Katz, lead researcher of the study, was interviewed by the press:
Katz added that the findings should not be interpreted as discouraging breastfeeding. Rather, he recommends simply complementing it with cow’s milk early on.
“Let Dad enjoy some midnight infant bonding,” he said, “while he delivers a dose or two of cow’s milk protein.”
Dr.Sharron Bransburg-Zabary, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and researcher in the field of the immune system at Tel Aviv University, read and responded to the study. In an article on the Israeli site Walla, Bransburg-Zabary points out flaws in the study’s data and methodology, and explains why its conclusions were so irresponsible.
The article looked at 13,000 births and analyzed data regarding the introduction of cow’s milk formula and subsequent dairy allergy. The data showed that only 0.5% of babies are allergic to cow’s milk, a much lower number than the one to three percent allergy rate reported in medical literature.
Below is my summary of Bransburg-Zabary’s main points:
- The study is retrospective, based on self-reporting by mothers, which took place weeks and months after the fact. Mothers needed to tell the researchers the date on which the baby was first exposed to cow’s milk, and report on any allergic symptoms that occurred within a few days of the exposure. Data gathered from this type of study is always suspect, even more so here because the period after birth is so intense. Relying on post-partum mothers to report allergy symptom means that many milk allergies were likely missed, explaining the unusually low incidence of dairy allergy among the infants studied.
- The study discarded data about exposure to cow’s milk formula in the hospital after birth. [MiI: The most recent data showed that 70% of Israeli babies receive formula in the hospital.] Babies who have received formula are no longer exclusively breastfeeding, yet the study did not account for those babies.
- No correlation was found with known factors in the literature that increase the rate of dairy allergy. These factors include gender, birth by cesarean section, and genetics.
- The study focused only on milk allergies, which are not generally life-threatening and usually pass by one year of age. Early exposure to cow’s milk and early weaning is also associated with many other health issues, including juvenile diabetes, chronic gastrointestinal illnesses, obesity, metabolic conditions, SIDS and even some types of cancers. The effects of not breastfeeding continue long after infancy. The researchers did not address these concerns when giving a blanket recommendation to give all babies cow’s milk at a few days or weeks of age.
- The study was funded, in part, by the Israel Milk Council. Anyone who markets cow’s milk has an interest in discouraging breastfeeding.
The researchers chose to ignore these dangers and recommend, in an irresponsible way, early exposure to cow’s milk that can damage babies’ health. They chose to directly influence the public, in an indefensible way, by bypassing the instructions of the health ministry entrusted with public health (perhaps knowing that the study would not pass this test) and whose dietary recommendations for infants contradict the study’s conclusions.
The cynical use researchers made of children’s health should concern health authorities in Israel. The study was funded by the “milk council” and one can only ask whether this study was motivated by financial interests. Is the health of our children up for grabs? Because it can’t be that a lone study concerned with only one risk with a very low incidence will lead to a harmful change in the way babies are fed.
Bransburg-Zabary mentioned that she reads dozens of articles about breastfeeding and the immune system each month, yet only negative studies about breastfeeding get so much press.
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