Breastfed babies are less prone to develop childhood obesity, new research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found.

The study looked at the data of almost 30,000 children from 22 countries partici­pating in the World Health Organi­sation Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative. The results show that infants who are never breastfed are 22 per cent more likely to be obese, while those who are exclusively breastfed for at least six months are 25 per cent less prone.

The fact that breastfeeding has a protective effect against various conditions, including obesity, is well known. However, this study further strengthens the evidence and shows that the longer a child is breastfed, the greater the benefit of protection.

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months. However, in some situations, bottle and breastfeeding are combined. In fact, children who were breastfed for at least six months – even if they were also bottlefed – still benefitted from a 22 per cent reduced risk of obesity.

The scientific evidence behind this protective effect against obesity, as the researchers suggest, is that as protein-heavy milk formula is mainly derived from cows’ milk and can lead to higher blood insulin levels, it stimulates fat cell growth.

Breast milk, on the other hand, contains hormones that regulate energy balance throughout life. Known for its essential nutrients, breast milk changes according to the baby’s need during growth and development. This is a unique characteristic that no other breast milk substitute can imitate.

Breastfeeding also provides psychological benefits. Physical closeness during breastfeeding offers the baby a sense of continuity to post-birth life

The findings from the study are important in an era where, despite various efforts by all countries, most continue to struggle with high rates of childhood obesity. This problem needs a multipronged approach, with initiatives, support and measures that can truly have an effect. Promoting breastfeeding provides a window of opportunity for obesity prevention. The main barriers to enhanced breastfeeding include inefficient policies to encourage the practice, lack of preparation by health professionals to support breastfeeding, intensive marketing of breast milk substitutes and problems in legislation on maternity protection.

Bente Mikkelsen, director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course, WHO/Europe, said: “The longer a child is breastfed, the greater their protection from obesity. This knowledge can strengthen our efforts in preventing obesity. Acting on childhood obesity – including severe obesity – can have major benefits, not only for child health and well-being, but also for national healthcare systems, so we must do all we can to promote and protect breastfeeding across the region.”

Apart from the protective effect on childhood obesity, breastfeeding provides further health benefits to babies – such as protection from infections and illnesses that include diarrhoea, ear infections and pneumonia; less risk to develop asthma; reduction in the risk of sudden infant death syndrome; and can help reduce the risk of many of the short-term and long-term health problems that preterm babies face.

Breastfeeding also has added health value for the mother. Breastfeeding triggers the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract. This helps it return to its normal size more quickly, may decrease the amount of bleeding after birth, help in weight loss after pregnancy and reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Breastfeeding also provides psychological benefits. Physical closeness during breastfeeding offers the baby a sense of continuity to post-birth life and continues to enhance the attachment. Breastfeeding also releases hormones that promote mothering behaviours.

There are also economic benefits, whereby families who follow optimal breastfeeding practices can: save money from buying infant formula milk; reduce one’s medical costs; mean better infant health and fewer health insurance claims; and less need for employees to take time off to care for sick children and therefore higher productivity for employers.

Breastfeeding provides unique nutritional and non-nutritional benefits to the infant and mother and, in turn, optimises infant, child and adult health, as well as child growth and development. Published evidence-based studies have confirmed and quantified the risks of not breastfeeding. Education, skills development, support and an environment that encourages breastfeeding should be the natural lifestyle choice. The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. After that, infants should be given nutritionally adequate complementary foods, with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.

Prof. Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.


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