Breastfed children have a significantly lower chance of becoming obese by the age of nine, according to a new report by the World Health Organisation looking at the relationship between breastfeeding and childhood obesity.
The Europe-wide study, involving 30,000 children across 16 countries, concluded that advertising was misleading in proclaiming formula to be “as good as breast milk” and that maternity pay needed to be better to enable and encourage more women to breastfeed
“Breastfeeding has a really strong protective effect,” said the paper’s lead author Dr João Breda, from the WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases. “The evidence is there. The benefit is outstanding, so we should be telling people.”
The study was part of the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (Cosi), a WHO project which has been running since 2007, looking into the causes and effects of obesity in children.
Findings showed 16.8% of the children in the study who were never breastfed were obese. Of the children who had been breastfed at some point, 13.2% were obese, while just 9.3% of children breastfed for six months or more were.
One of the ways breastfeeding is thought to lower obesity is by maintaining lower insulin levels than formula-fed babies, leading to the body storing less fat, the report states. And there are other health benefits beyond insulin regulation, “Breastfed babies are less likely to get gastro-intestinal, respiratory and ear infections, and are less likely to be hospitalised for infections,” Professor Mary Fewtrell, assistant officer for health improvement for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, tells HuffPost UK.
The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, but this is something only 1% of babies in Britain receive – although 34% are still occasionally breastfeeding by this point. The UK has one of the world’s lowest breastfeeding rates.
It’s important to remember breastfeeding isn’t an option for everyone. Health, convenience and choice all mean it isn’t on the cards for some women – and nobody should be made to feel bad if they don’t do it.
In the UK, around three quarters of new mums start breastfeeding, but this figure reduces drastically by the time babies reach six weeks old, explains Professor Fewtrell.
“There are many possible explanations for this,” she says. “Mothers may experience practical problems in establishing breastfeeding, and fail to get adequate practical support.
A mother’s worries about whether her infant is getting enough milk may lead friends, family and health professionals to suggest formula ‘supplements’, says Fewtrell, which can reduce her milk production, leading her to stop breastfeeding sooner. “Mothers also need to feel confident and comfortable breastfeeding in public, but this requires support from family, friends, professionals, government, the workplace, and wider society so that breastfeeding is regarded as normal and natural,” she adds.
The RCHCP is keen to stress that there are some women who cannot or who choose not to breastfeed – this should be respected, and appropriate support and education on infant feeding should always be available.