Science You Can Use: Do we accurately recall how long we breastfed our children?

If you’re breastfeeding now, do you think you’ll remember – to the month – when you weaned 20 years after the fact?  When it comes to breastfeeding, are we like mama elephants or Forgetful Jones?  The answer has big implications for breastfeeding research.

There are many vexing problems in breastfeeding research.  One is the definition of terms like “breastfeeding” and “exclusive breastfeeding.”  Another is that many retrospective studies rely on mothers’ recall of how long they breastfed.  This is important, because researchers are often trying to determine if breastfeeding for certain lengths of time is associated with health outcomes for mothers and babies.

Research to date has indicated that our memories are pretty accurate when it comes to time shortly after delivery.  A few small studies have shown that our long term memories aren’t as good.

But a new study from Norway is shedding more light on this question, and it looks like our memories are better than previously thought.

This study is the first the long term investigation of mothers’ recall of breastfeeding duration which used a large sample and where breastfeeding was common and practiced “long term” (an average of 6 months, but remember that this was in the 1980’s).

The research team carried out a prospective study which compared the complete medical records of mothers who responded to questionnaires sent to them 20 to 22 years later in 2008.  62% of the original participants returned the questionnaire, though for many of them the medical record data was incomplete so couldn’t be used for comparison.  The final comparison group was 374 mothers.

Here’s what they found:

Recorded and recalled breastfeeding duration was strongly correlated.  Nearly two thirds of women recalled their breastfeeding to within one month. Recall data showed a modest median overestimation of about 2 weeks.

Not bad, considering that this is 20 to 22 years after their children were born, don’t you think?

And our memories don’t appear to be clouded by subsequent children or influenced by our educational level.  The study found no difference in accuracy of memory based on mothers’ education or the number of children they had.  Tendency to over-report was only associated, after adjusting for other factors, with having introduced other foods by 4 months.

Why would mothers tend to over-estimate in our memories compared to what they reported at the time?  Errors of one month in either direction could be explained by rounding errors, the authors say.  And this makes sense:  Say you had the memory of a mama elephant and can recall that you breastfed for 4.5 months.  If you were asked twice, at 20 year intervals, to report that number in months, you may well round in one or the other direction.

There are some weaknesses here, such as the fact that the 32% of women who did not respond to the survey had slightly different background characteristics and may have had different recall of their breastfeeding duration.  And that breastfeeding beyond 13 months (which wasn’t common) wasn’t recorded in terms of months, so as long as those mothers recalled that they breastfed beyond that point their recall would be considered perfectly accurate.

But all in all, it’s an evidence that research based on mothers’ recall of their breastfeeding experiences might be pretty accurate after all.  And this suggests that research based on our memories may be more solid than previously thought.

Do you remember how long you breastfed each of your children?  Is your memory getting a little fuzzy as the years pass, or is it still pretty clear?





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5 Comments | Last revised on 11/26/2012

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