Breastfeeding and Obesity

Whether or not to breastfeed (and for how long) is a personal choice that concerns many mothers and families. Influenced by tradition, comfort level, and an ever-changing body of medical evidence, the breastfeeding question can be confusing.

Now, research suggests that the link between breastfeeding and decreased obesity in children is not as strong as we once thought, and women have another piece of information at their disposal when deciding if and for what length of time to breastfeed.

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England investigated the impact of the length of time a child is breastfeed on his or her risk of obesity by tracking the growth of nearly 14,000 infants in Belarus. Dr. Richard M. Martin and colleagues modeled their research on the WHO/UNICEF Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, which promotes breastfeeding among new mothers.

The researchers randomly placed mothers into one of two groups: a breastfeeding promotion and regular practice group and a control group who did not receive the promotion and practice sessions. As expected, mothers in the first group breastfed their children for longer and more exclusively.

Most of the babies were re-examined at 6.5 and 11.5 years old, and researchers found no significant differences in child adiposity (fatty tissue deposits) and circulating insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which regulates growth, between the two groups.

What Does Past Research Say?

A great deal of research has been conducted on the possible link between breastfeeding and obesity protection in children. However, Martin says that many of these studies have had the same essential flaw.

“Prior evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial for infant and child health in industrialized countries was based almost exclusively on observational studies, which are prone to confounding (i.e. where any observed protective effects may not be due to breastfeeding per se, but to differences in the characteristics of mothers who choose to breast or formula feed),” he explained.

Martin says that a randomized trial prevents these potential biases. “[W]hile it is not feasible to randomize healthy term infants to breastfeeding versus formula feeding, it is possible to randomize hospitals to a breastfeeding promotion intervention, which is what we did in our trial,” he said.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

Just because breastfeeding may not help with weight management doesn’t discount its many other advantages. And while claims about breastfeeding are constantly changing, one fact remains, according to the researchers: “Although breastfeeding is unlikely to stem the current obesity epidemic, its other advantages are amply sufficient to justify continued public health efforts to promote, protect, and support it.”

Even though the trial failed to find a connection between breastfeeding and decreased obesity, the researchers found other encouraging evidence in favor of breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding has many health advantages for the offspring, including beneficial effects demonstrated by our trial on gastrointestinal infections and atopic eczema in infancy and improved cognitive development at age 6.5 years,” Martin said, a claim supported by research from World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life for optimal growth, development, and health.

How Can I Help My Child Maintain a Healthy Weight?

We all know the importance of teaching our children to stay active and choose healthy foods, but how can you make the process of getting fit more enjoyable?

  • Get the whole family involved in creative activities in which everyone participates, from a day at the park to a trip to the roller rink. Treat exercise as a fun way to get in shape rather than a chore, and your child will follow suit.
  • Eating right doesn’t have to be a pain, either. The right presentation and some new lunchbox finds can make a huge difference in getting kids to become more adventurous eaters.
  • Also pay attention to what you eat and where, and teach your child how to make these healthy decisions for him or herself. Utilize online resources to keep track of your calories, and also take advantage of resources that are just for kids.
  • Take it one day at a time. There are no easy fixes for improved health, so think of every day as an opportunity to incorporate more healthy behaviors into your life.

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