Breast or Bottle: No Correlation With Autism Risk

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=”” 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, .


Related Care2 Coverage

New Autism Studies Question Emphasis on Genetic Causes

The Autism Advantage: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis

What Happened to Ayn Could Happen to Any Autistic Child

Photo by sully213


Gemma M.

It looks like there is no data enough...

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

You know I was born in 1943 and I was premature. My Papa said I could fit in a cigar box. I haven't seen a cigar box lately but back then they were pretty small. He also said I looked like a moneky. LOL One of the things they said about premies back then was, "there is always something wrong with a premature baby". Of course years latter we know that is not true because we have learn more about premature babies and how to help them. We also have generations to view and study.

My point is there is a lot of studies these days and many ways to disseminate that information. Perhaps we are being spoon fed too many theories and not enough concrete facts. Maybe they are in a rush to make a name for themselves by being published. For me, I take these studies with a grain of salt because one comes out today saying bottle feeding causes autism and tomorrow one will come out and say breast feeding cuases autism. I think they should hold off publishing until all the data is in and more than one individual can evaluate it.

Let's face it, science does not have a clue yet what causes autism and the various serverities. Sadly I think it will take years of studing these children, like it did with premies, to come up with anything conclusive.

Jeanne Petty
Jeanne Petty6 years ago

There is no correlation between bottlefeeding and anything. Same for breastfeeding.

Its all a load of crap to push people into doing something they don't want to do.

If it is so selfish to not breastfeed my child, then why is it not selfish to drop them in a daycare?

Nanette Aldana
Nanette a6 years ago

I don't see any correlation between breast or bottle fed babies and autism. I bottle fed my child because that was my choice as a woman and mother. I was a bottle fed baby as well and was fine and my child didn't even get his first cold until after he was 1 yr. old and that was because one of the moms who breast fed brought her sick kids to his birthday. I think for woman who want to breast feed and eat healthy it is great, but if you don't eat right your baby is not getting good nutrition. I also would say go organic.

Mary L.
Mary L6 years ago

"“Natural birth-spacing mechanisms” refers to the fact that breast-feeding causes hormonal changes that inhibit ovulation, says Gallup."

Now that's a hoot. My dad was the first born, his second brother was conceived 6 months later. All of the boys (4, no girls) were breast fed.

Another theory shot to heck.

Guillermo Ramon
Guillermo Ramon6 years ago

separate noise from meaningful sound. This is all probably caused by a dysfunctional amygdala.
The reason the amygdala is assumed to be involved in the development of emotions is that it controls the flow of sensory information as it comes from outside into us, and from the brain to our sensory reactions. That is in itself how we feel. External stimuli come to our nervous system and produce a reaction that triggers internal sensations. In autistic people, the internal sensations are very different than in the rest of us. Consequently, to autistic people, meaning and social referencing are useless.
Now that we are starting to scratch the surface of autism, I simply ask, what can breastfeeding or bottle feeding have that influences the development of autism?

Guillermo Ramon
Guillermo Ramon6 years ago

Non-productive behaviors are normally repetitive behaviors that lead to no consequence. For instance, walking in circles around a glass of milk would never lead for us to get the milk. Most non-productive behaviors tend to be self stimulatory and are often self injurious. Repetitive behaviors that are very common to autism are rocking, pulling one’s hair, pinching one’s skin, scratching, head banging, pacing, repetition of senseless words or of meaningful words in senseless contexts, biting oneself, punching oneself, tapping, and hitting one object repeatedly. There are many more non-productive behaviors. All have a couple of things in common. They are self stimulatory, helping the autistic person withdraw. The constant repetition of a self stimulatory behavior helps eliminate the need for other stimulation. In addition, repetitive self stimulation helps reduce anxiety. High anxiety is very common in most people with developmental problems. Part of the problem is that they do not develop coping mechanisms.  The reason for this is often a very low social referencing ability.
The common element that I find in the mix of autistic behaviors is a unique process for the inter-relation between stimulus and internal response. In other words, autistic people perceive the world differently and have unique internal responses to it. Autistic people have poor sensory integration, many of them have very strong responses to tactile stimuli, and have a very difficult time to

Guillermo Ramon
Guillermo Ramon6 years ago

On the basis of the above and many other facts, autism is either caused genetically, during gestation, or both.  To see this clearly, we must break down autism in its behavioral components. The three areas that are common to autism are communications, expression of emotions, and non-productive behaviors.
Autistic communication tends to be very weak at the receptive level and full of incorrect manifestations at expressive level.  Typical manifestations of autistic communication are echolalia, aphasia, non-communication words (seemingly randomly produced), swinging from useful to useless communication, minimal expression (often limited to monosyllabic sentences). Meaning is limited often to present tense, concrete elements.  Sometimes, autistic people use emotionally charged expressions out of context. Overall, limited communication tends to be a major marker of autism.
Autistic people do not express emotion like the rest of the people. In most cases, the autistic emotional range tends to be limited to extreme emotions. Laughter, crying, explosive anger, and marked fear are commonly expressed by autistic people. However, many of the more common emotions that make us smile, or shift interest from one thing to another are normally lacking in most autistic people.  The limited emotional response to stimulus makes it very difficult to train autistic people. External reinforcers and punishers are frequently needed to engage autistic people in learni

Guillermo Ramon
Guillermo Ramon6 years ago

I have worked with autism, pervasive developmental disorder, and many other developmental problems for over twenty years. In these years I have seen theories come and go, screwing quite a few children up, and benefiting the pockets and prestige of many adults. Most theories are constructed on the basis of autistic symptoms, rather than on the core of what autism is. Some theories are simply constructed on the hopes of the families of autistic people. People want easy cures and simple explanations. This is how “magic cures” are created. I have seen and or heard about ultra violet cures, multi-vitamin cures, and other improbable cures. I have actually attended lectures by perfectly normal people who claim to have been autistic and been cured from it. Yet, because of what autism is, there cannot be a cure for it.
Autism is not an illness, but a unique developmental process that differs from the mainstream development. Autism is not mental retardation or cerebral palsy. Many autistic children have cerebral palsy and mental retardation. The frequency of comorbidity between different developmental disorders leads me to assume that most of them are caused by either common causes, causes that are part of the same formation chain, or both. Most cerebral palsy is caused at birth or during gestation; most mental retardation cases are developed during gestation or at birth. Genetic disorders, like Down syndrome are visually uniquely different to other developmental disorders

Jennifer M.
Jennifer M6 years ago

Either way, breast is ALWAYS best!