It’s Called Basic Reasoning

Posted: January 28, 2009 in Good News Week
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Oh, come on, Queensland – women who don’t breastfeed are more likely to neglect or abuse their children? The fact that you’ve managed to correlate these two things does not mean that one is directly responsible for the other. Many women choose not to breastfeed: some for medical reasons, some out of personal preference, some out of necessity. The fact that abusive mothers go down a similar path, however, is not a rational choice, because for whatever reason, they are already emotionally disconnected from their children; and if this disconnect is caused by external or pre-existing problems, then breastfeeding will not solve them. In fact, if those problems concern substance abuse, alcoholism or chain-smoking, then breastfeeding could well harm the child in question. Fancy! 

So, no, Lane Strathearn: promoting breasfeeding is not a simple and “cost-effective” way of preventing abuse and neglect. The act of suckling a child will not cure post-natal depression, alcoholism or nicotine addiction, nor will it negate the consequences emotional trauma, poverty, single parenthood or poor education. Those are many and various battles; none of them simple. By all means, promote breastfeeding in public; educate women about their choices; help addicted mothers come clean. But don’t lay guilt on good, happy, bottle-feeding mothers by wielding poorly reasoned conclusions about their propensity for child abuse.

That kind of idiocy helps no-one.

  1. Maestro says:


    Firstly, why were you on a site about babies? Is there something you and Toby wish to announce? 😉

    Secondly, when I read this, and looked briefly at the article, I just sighed, cause this is the sort of reasoning that medicine has been struggling with forever and ever. The problem is that people who aren’t trained in scientific evaluation and reasoning (i.e. popular science writers, baby-themed web-site bloggers, TV news reporters, etc) tend to look at the conclusion of a scientific report and draw their own unrelated conclusions based on throw-away comments. For instance, perhaps the writer of the original report noticed an association between people who abused/neglected their babies and rates of breast-feeding and mentioned this in their report (as is their wont). As you correctly identified, there is no causal relationship here, merely an association. People who neglect their babies are probably just less likely to breast-feed, and forcing them to breast-feed will not turn them into mothers-of-the-year overnight.

    One of the hardest things to prove is causality, where you can say, without doubt, that A leads to B. Actually proving this requires massive, expensive (in the millions and sometimes billions of dollars for drug trials), often unethical trials taking many years. This was particularly evident in the anti-tobacco lobbying of the past 30 or so years. Studies started showing more and more that smoking was associated with a list of diseases as long as your arm. However, the tobacco companies could almost never be held accountable because they could easily say things like “well, you haven’t proven that smoking leads to lung cancer. Maybe the sort of people that are likely to smoke are also more prone to developing that sort of lung cancer.” and there’s nothing you can say, cause it’s true, the research doesn’t prove anything, just shows associations and risk factors.

    Not every topic warrants the sort of interest/investment involved in a randomised clinical trial. In this case, you would have to set up 2 groups of mothers (demographically identical in as many ways as possible), and make one group breast feed and the other not, then watch them to see which ones abuse or neglect their children. Already this is unethical, because there are health benefits to breast-feeding, as well as supposed bonding and so on. Also, mothers likely to abuse/neglect their babies should be identified as early as possible and referred to social work and support services and watched carefully, all of which would interfere too much with such a trial for it to be meaningful. Even without interference, the mere fact that you would have to follow up with these people means they would be less likely to abuse their babies, cause they know they would be followed up, or maybe people who would actually abuse/neglect their babies would be less likely to participate in such a trial.

    So, after much rambling, I wish to make several points:
    a) writers of scientific reports should probably be clearer with their language about what is a causal relationship and what is merely an association (unlikely because the language of science is fairly standard and is understood in the audience most likely to be reading the report)

    b) popular science writers/bloggers/etc should either have some scientific training or not be allowed to report on such things (unlikely cause people are douchebags and will report on whatever they feel like, and you can’t really do anything to stop them; freedom of speech and so on)

    c) people who read such blogs should never take anything to heart, or get offended about such things, because nothing you read on a baby blog is likely to be that scientifically based, unless the author actually has a medical/nursing/scientific background (also unlikely, cause people are people, and believe anything the internet says, especially wikipedia)

    d) I have rambled enough and will stop now.

  2. C Haze says:

    I have two kids- I breastfed my oldest daughter… didn’t breastfeed my youngest. I don’t abuse either of them… now, my 10 year old may try and tell you that I often torture her, but clearly that isn’t the same thing.

    By the time I got pregnant with my (now) 3 year old, I had already been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis… and was on some pretty heave meds to control it. No way was I subjecting my baby to all those drugs in my system.

    Personally speaking, I’m thinking that had I actually breastfed her, in light of all the drugs and stuff, THAT would have been abusive… not the other way around.


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