The menu for the first six months of babies’ lives should have one item only, according to a new study. Exclusive breastfeeding is the best way to fight respiratory and ear infections, say researchers in the Archives of Diseases of Childhood.
Breastfeeding is the healthiest diet for infants
A new study adds more evidence and one more authoritative voice to the cry for mothers to breastfeed their children for at least the first six months of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) has advocated it for some time, stating that “as a global public health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed (1) for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health.” WHO makes this recommendation in all cases “except for a few medical conditions.”
In previous studies, breastfeeding has been linked to many health benefits for infants, including an enhanced immune system and reduced risk for severe lower respiratory tract infections, gastroenteritis, and asthma, as well as protection against the development of allergies. Breastfeeding has also been associated with a lower risk of childhood leukemia, diabetes, high cholesterol, and sudden infant death syndrome.
Researchers in the newest study tracked the health of 926 vaccinated infants for 12 months. All of the infants had access to high-quality health care. After one month, nearly two-thirds of mothers were breastfeeding, but by month 6 less than 20 percent of infants were being breastfed. Overall, less than 10 percent of the infants (91) were breastfed exclusively for the entire six months. Babies who had been breastfed and received formula were not included in this figure.
The infants who had been breastfed exclusively had fewer common infections, including ear infections, thrust, and respiratory infections, during their first 12 months of life than their peers who were breastfed only part or none of the time. When any of the 91 infants did get sick, their infections were less severe.
Nursing mothers pass along critical substances to their infants from the very first time they breastfeed. That is when the “first milk,” or colostrum, is passed along to the nursing baby. Colostrum is high in carbohydrates, antibodies, and protein and very easy for infants to digest. It also has a laxative effect, which helps infants pass their first stools and thus eliminate excess bilirubin and prevents jaundice. Colostrum also contains bacteria-killing white cells.
Professor Emmanouil Galanakis and his research team emphasize the importance of breastfeeding, noting that “in addition to all the other benefits, exclusive breastfeeding helps prevent infections in babies and lessens the frequency and severity of infectious episodes.” Yet despite continuing efforts and positive evidence about the health benefits of breastfeeding, many women in developed countries, even those who start breastfeeding, do not continue past more than a month or two.
In the United States, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics for 2008 show that 62 percent of new mothers say they breastfed their infant, but only 39.1 percent continued for two months or longer. However, only 12.9 percent of mothers breastfed exclusively for at least three months, and only 7.2 percent continued to do so for at least six months.
The best menu for infants is breastfeeding for the first six months of life. Along with the proven health benefits for the child, there is also the bonding that occurs between mother and child and health benefits for mothers who breastfeed as well.
Galanakis E et al. Archives of Diseases in Childhood 2010 Sept. DOI: 10.1136/adc.2009.169912
La Leche League International
World Health Organization