First I need to make something clear before discussing a study that makes an association between bottle-feeding and an increased risk of a child developing autism. A little poll of the residents of my household produced the following results:
Four people were bottle-fed.
Two person were breast-fed.
The four who were bottle-fed are: both of my parents (my mother, the eldest of 5 children, hadmemories of boiling glass bottles and rubber nipples to sterilize them), my husband and me.
The one who was breast-fed, and for 13 months? Our son Charlie who, as I’ve noted regularly here, is autistic.
Now that that’s been said, about the study.
It was published in Medical Hypotheses, which is not a peer-reviewed journal but one providing, indeed, hypotheses, including a paper that played a significant role in advancing the discredited notion that vaccines of something in vaccines could be linked to autism.
The study in question is by evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany. Gallup’ hypothesis that (to be more specific) an absence of breast-feeding may be linked to autism is based not on his own research, but on his analysis of data from a study in the January issue of Pediatrics. As Time magazine says:
[The Pediatrics] study analyzed more than 650,000 families to show that second-born children conceived within a year or less of the first child were three times more likely to have autism than second-borns conceived several years later. Gallup believes bottle-feeding may have been to blame.
“I would predict that their next oldest sibling was bottle-fed and that the reason they were conceived within a year is because of the effect that bottle-feeding has on undermining natural birth-spacing mechanisms,” says Gallup.
“Natural birth-spacing mechanisms” refers to the fact that breast-feeding causes hormonal changes that inhibit ovulation, says Gallup. So it follows that a mom who is exclusively breast-feeding has a low likelihood of conceiving again as long as her baby continues to nurse. Bottle-feeding moms, on the other hand, resume menstruating and ovulating within a few months of giving birth. They have a far greater chance of conceiving another child soon after delivery, and are therefore at far greater risk of having a child with autism.
Gallup seems to be trying to make sense of the Pediatrics study’s findings by drawing on evolutionary psychology: Mothers have, of course, nursed their children from time immemorial, while bottle-feeding only started in the 1800s. This quite recent innovation in feeding infants has led, says Gallup, to an evolutionary “mismatch” between “that to which we adapted over thousands of years” and our current socio-cultural practices. Bottle-feeding, a practice arising in our industrialized society, has (says the theory) led to a mucking-up of century-old ways of feeding infants and of — since Gallup does mention menstruation and ovulation — the functioning of women’s bodies.
Time asked a lead author of the Pediatrics study,Keely Cheslack-Postava, the postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, what she thought of Gallup’s hypothesis. As Cheslack-Postava points out, her own study primarily focused on children born during the 1990s, a time when there was a marked increase in autism diagnoses. She emphasizes that
…the correlation between closely spaced births and autism found in her study was just that: a correlation. There’s no evidence to suggest that having kids further apart will prevent autism, and there may well be many other environmental or genetic factors that occur alongside closely spaced pregnancies that could affect autism risk.
Theories of autism causation abound, with a href=”http://www.care2.com/causes/new-autismstudies-question-emphasis-on-genetic-causes.html” target=”_blank”>two new entrants in the field appearing last week. Both of those studies focused on maternal health, with one study saying that “environmental” factors such as maternal age could play a larger role than genetic ones, and the other noting a correlation between maternal use of SSRI’s during pregnancy and autism in a child. For both of those studies, the researchers looked at data about autistic children from the state of California and women’s health records, respectively.
Gallup’s hypothesis, which is based on looking at someone else’s data, (intentionally or not) make some troubling assumptions about maternal behavior and choices. Women who bottle-feed are seen as not doing what women have naturally done for eons, breast-feeding a child. This unnatural — aberrant? — behavior can be, in Gallup’s theory, linked to autism.
In our culture today, breast-feeding is (with good reason) widely encouraged for its health benefits for mother and child. But suggesting that a woman who bottle-fed her infant (for medical and other reasons) is “increasing the autism risk” for the child, points the finger at mothers who do not breastfeed as potentially jeopardizing their children. It seems that we are once again skirting close to theories of mother-blaming to explain autism’s causes, an unfortunate and highly troubling development, and all the more so when we recall the devastating effects of the refrigerator mother theory, a once-widely accepted hypothesis of autism causation, .
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