Breastfeeding and Autism

Mother breastfeedingWe’ve all heard the saying “breast is best” and it is fantastic that women are being encouraged to breastfeed their babies because it has so many benefits for both mother and baby.

This month has been chosen by the US Department of Health and Human Services as National Breastfeeding Awareness Month and the department has launched a campaign to highlight the benefits of breastfeeding .

Breast fed babies are at a lower risk of:-

  • Allergies
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Childhood leukemia
  • Respiratory infections
  • Ear infections
  • Insulin dependent diabetes mellitus
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis
  • Obesity
  • Infections

Women who have breastfed/are breastfeeding their babies:-

  • Have a lower risk of contracting breast cancer, ovarian cancer and Type 2 Diabetes
  • Are at a lower risk of Postpartum Depression
  • Burn 500 calories a day by breastfeeding alone and so can return to their pre-pregnancy weight quicker
  • Can save a significant amount of money when compared to those who buy formula – It is estimated that a breastfeeding mom can save between $1,160 and $3,915 depending on the brand of formula the comparison is made against.

Moms are advised to give their babies breastmilk alone for the first 6 months of life (i.e. no weaning) and to try and breastfeed for the baby’s first year.

Breastfeeding and Autism

But hasn’t breastfeeding been linked to an increased risk of autism?

Well, a study by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) by neurologist Michael Merzenich et al. in 2007 suggested that there is a link between breastfeeding and autism because of environmental toxins, like PCBs, which are now present in breast milk.

This study on rats found that rat pups whose mothers were exposed to PCBs in their food, during pregnancy and while nursing, suffered significant developmental abnormalities. Tal Kenet PhD, a member of the research team, said:

“Breast feeding is by far the optimal choice for the vast majority of infants, given its indisputable nutritional and immunological benefits, and our findings, conducted in rats, by no means suggest women should alter their nursing practice. The finding does suggest the need for studies in human populations to determine whether there are possible risks associated with breast feeding in cases of extreme exposure to this class of chemicals, in particular in infants who may have a genetic predisposition to developmental disorders based on their family history.”

So, should we take this study seriously and stop breastfeeding?


What we have to remember is that this study was on rats and while it is important to encourage research into the harmful toxins in our environment, and their affect on our babies’ brains and development, the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh this unproven link to autism. Plus a survey carried out in 2006 – “Breastfeeding, infant formula supplementation, and Autistic Disorder: the results of a parent survey” by Stephen T Schultz et al. concluded that:

“The results of this preliminary study indicate that children who were not breastfed or were fed infant formula without docosahexaenoic acid/arachidonic acid supplementation were significantly more likely to have autistic disorder.”

Breast is still definitely best.

Further Reading – The UCSF study on rats. – An article on the study with an MP3 of an interview with the study author Michael Merzenich. – Information and support on breastfeeding. – La Leche League International, for help, support and information about breastfeeding. – The 2006 survey by Stephen T Schultz et al into breastfeeding, formula and autism.


  1. virginia says

    umm … your article says:

    “Moms are advised to only give their babies breastmilk for the first 6 months of life and to try and breastfeed for the baby’s first year”

    Which is it? You can’t advise women to give breatmilk for just 6 months and advise them to breast feed for 1 year. What would be the point of the breastfeeding for the second 6-months if you should not be giving the milk?

  2. admin says

    I’m sorry that this sentence can be misunderstood, I actually meant that they should only give breastmilk for the first 6 months, breastmilk alone. i.e. the baby should not be weaned during the first 6 months and it is recommended that moms carry on breastfeeding for 1 year. I’ll edit that sentence now.

  3. says

    My son had tremendous difficulty nursing, and I was unable to breastfeed him. Looking back, I think that was a sign of his low muscle tone (he couldn’t get anything out of the first bottles we tried either b/c they had silicone nipples). It was a traumatic experience for both of us.

  4. Wendy says

    Virginia, that means babies should receive only breastmilk in the first 6 months…as in no solids.

  5. admin says

    Thanks, Wendy. In fact, American Academy of Pediatrics new guidelines stress this recommendation as well. I generally recommended solid foods on the first sign of tooth as a sign of GI maturation. However, this is just a generalization.

  6. says

    I suggest one more change to that sentence and make it “breastfeed for the baby’s first two years” as is the recommendation of the World Health Organization and at least one major world religion (Islam).

  7. admin says

    Thanks Jessi. I would agreed to 2 years of breastfeeding but again this is just my opinion.

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