The first of these relates to drinking during pregnancy. It's well-established that binge-drinking or heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause serious developmental problems in children. However, there's a good deal of controversy around moderate drinking. Some doctors recommend complete abstinence—and so do many helpful friends and strangers when pregnant women dare to lift a glass in public.
A recent study by Janni Niclasen, a post-doctoral student at the University of Copenhagen, adds to the literature suggesting that abstinence does not necessarily ensure better health for the child. On the contrary, after looking at a large population study by the Danish Health and medicine authorities, Niclasen found that "the children of mothers who drank small quantities of alcohol [a little more than one glass of wine a week] during their pregnancies show significantly better emotional and behavioral outcomes at age seven compared to children of mothers who did not drink at all."
Niclasen attributes her findings to psychological and behavioral factors; mothers who drank during pregnancy tended to be better educated and healthier overall than those who didn't drink. Niclasen insists that "this is not an invitation to pregnant women to drink alcohol," and she's also been quoted as saying, “I really believe that even a glass of wine now and again is really damaging.” Certainly, as a researcher, her opinion matters—but at the moment, her contention that any alcohol has a major effect on child development appears to contradict the data she's found. At the very least, it seems like a pregnant woman could look at this study and make an educated, reasonable assessment that drinking a glass of wine on occasion isn't going to doom her child. And since the available data and recommendations are conflicting, if you see a pregnant woman taking a drink, no one is really in a position to tell her that she is immoral, or needs to stop.
If drinking is the issue du jour of pregnancy, once a child is born perhaps the biggest area of contention is whether or not to breast-feed. Another recent study adds some science to that debate as well. The paper in the journal Social Science and Medicine "compared siblings who were fed differently during infancy," and found that "breast-feeding might be no more beneficial than bottle-feeding for 10 of 11 long-term health and well-being outcomes in children age 4 to 14." The one case where there did appear to be a difference was in incidence of asthma, which was actually worse among breast-fed babies.
As Maggie Koerth-Baker argues at Boing Boing, the study doesn't necessarily show that women should stop breast-feeding or shouldn't try to breast-feed—among other things, formula is expensive, which is reason enough to make it easier for women in public spaces to breast-feed if that's what they want to do. But what the study does show, as Koerth-Baker says, is:
"For those of us living relatively wealthy lives in developed countries, whether or not we are breastfed is just one of many, many factors that affects our long-term health, behavior, and intelligence and there is at least some reason to suspect that breastfeeding may not be the most important of those factors."
Coincidentally, this is exactly what Niclasen's study of drinking shows. That is, it demonstrates that for those living relatively comfortable lives, there are many factors which affect child health, and drinking moderately during pregnancy is not necessarily the most important of those.