Off the tit (or breastfeeding bloggox)

According to paediatric specialists at University College London, breastfeeding infants exclusively until they are six months old may not be the best approach. A paper published yesterday in the British Medical Journal is critical of advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is accepted by a minority of European Union governments, including that of the UK.

The now 10-year-old WHO policy is based on 16 studies, including seven from developing countries. However, another 33 studies found “no compelling evidence” for the six month breastfeeding-only recommendation. Introducing solid foods from four months is preferable, according to Mary Fewtrell and her UCL colleagues, who argue that the early introduction of solids can lessen the incidence of food allergies. Other experts disagree, and there is a worthwhile debate to be had about the details.

Breastfeeding is a hugely important child health concern, but for me the story is particularly interesting owing to the way it is being presented in the media. The UCL press release is clear, sober, and an accurate reflection of the research paper. But let’s now look at two examples of media reporting of the story.

First we have a non-bylined BBC News article. I really wish we could attach a name to this short piece, as its author deserves credit for such well-written and accurate journalism. The BBC text is a good précis of the UCL release, and the writer has taken the trouble to do some cross-checking of the science. The result adds value to the story presented by the UCL researchers and their press office colleagues.

Now look at Sarah Bosely’s article in the Guardian, the style of which is very different. Bosely has taken a sensationalist approach, focusing on the anger of pro-breast campaigners, and criticism of the UCL scientists, including a suggestion that their research is tainted by association with baby food manufacturers. While it is essential to question whether there are any conflicts of interest, one cannot charge the scientists with such on the grounds that a few of them have provided expert advice to industry. That is a part of an academic scientist’s job description.

Bosely’s Guardian article almost completely obscures the science with manufactured controversy. I say “manufactured”, as the piece is clearly written to stimulate blog comment, of which there is no shortage. It is shitty journalism, and damaging too. In contrast to the inconsequential tosh that fills much of the political blogosphere, the Guardian website included, breastfeeding has major consequences for child development.

The Guardian is often touted as among the best of the British media when it comes to science reporting. Clearly not with topics that have the potential to provoke a fight. Commercial and political expediency then trumps scientific and journalistic integrity.

Further reading: Fewtrell et al., “Six months of exclusive breastfeeding: how good is the evidence?”, BMJ 342, c5995 (2011)

For a practical guide to breastfeeding, see “All about breastfeedng”.