Breastfeeding and Autism: What’s the Link?
Autism is a frightening diagnosis for any parent. A life-long struggle with communication and relationships isn’t something any parent wants for his or her baby. And as the number of children diagnosed grows year after year, parents and the scientific community are looking everywhere for surefire ways to prevent autism. Since autism most often strikes before the age of three, researchers are trying to nail down the cause to something that occurs in pregnancy or early childhood. Recently, some research has suggested that perhaps breastfeeding, or the lack thereof, could affect the likelihood of an autism diagnosis.
In the June edition of journal Medical Hypotheses,1 Gordon Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist, posited that autism risk goes up when mothers don’t breastfeed for long enough. Under normal circumstances, a breastfeeding mother’s body secretes hormones that reduce the likelihood of her becoming pregnant while still nursing. When mothers stop nursing soon after giving birth, they can become pregnant well before, Gallup asserts, they’re biologically supposed to do.
Gallup is not alone in his theory. In 2006, an observational study in the International Breastfeeding Journal found a correlation between the length of time children were breastfed and the likelihood of developing autism.2 Children who were breastfed less than six months were more likely to be diagnosed with autism.
However, not all the research is in agreement. In fact, some research suggests that breastfeeding could contribute to, rather than prevent, an autism diagnosis. The theory is that environmental toxins find their way into the breast milk, are transferred to the infant, and can then cause developmental delays and autism. Michael Merzenich, PhD of UCSF published his research saying increased levels of environmental toxins could be a cause of autism, as well as other developmental delays3. He emphasizes that his research is exclusively in rats, which means it doesn’t apply directly to humans, but he finds the results quite alarming. PCBs and PCBEs, harmful environmental toxins that build up in fatty tissue, are passed through breast milk to children. To study their effect, Dr. Merzenich fed PCBs and PCBEs to young rats, in the same proportions they would be found in breast milk. The results were severe developmental and functional delays similar to those seen in autism. Despite his own results, Dr. Merzenich still encourages mothers to breastfeed, but he believes further study is needed.
So who does one believe, the pro or the con? Well, for now, believe neither. The journal Medical Hypotheses is a publication for specifically that, hypotheses. It features science writing based on well-developed, interesting theories that have not yet been fully tested and, as of now, remain educated guesses. As for the study in the Breastfeeding Journal? It only finds a correlation between shorter breastfeeding and autism rates, which is not the same thing as a cause. There could be additional factors outside the scope of the study that have a greater impact, but weren’t recorded. Finally, a study done in rats cannot be automatically extrapolated to humans, like Dr. Merzenich emphasizes. Ultimately, Autism is a highly complex disorder likely created by numerous circumstances.
However, breastfeeding is a less contentious issue. Though it is unclear whether breastfeeding has any power to affect an autism diagnosis, it is still a highly recommended practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics4 endorses breastfeeding since it encourages bonding with your infant, helps prevent infections, and helps mothers reach their healthy pre-pregnancy weight faster. Not to mention, it also cuts spending on infant formula and is by far the most environmentally friendly way to feed your baby.
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