DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m pregnant and am getting a lot of pressure from family and friends to breast-feed. I’m not ruling that out, but I’d like to know what the research shows about the benefits of breast-feeding.
Breast-feeding can be a contentious issue. On the one hand, there’s no question that breast-feeding is healthy for babies. But some mothers prefer not to breast-feed, and others simply can’t for a variety of reasons.
So how much difference does breast-feeding make to a baby’s health? A series of articles recently published in the journal Pediatrics gives us an idea.
The studies updated earlier studies, published in 2008, that examined infant feeding practices from birth through 12 months. The new studies followed up with the same moms and children six years later. Here are some of the findings:
- Prolonged breast-feeding (several months) and delaying solid foods led to fewer ear, throat and sinus infections. But it had no effect on colds, lung infections or urinary infections.
- Prolonged breast-feeding and delaying solids didn’t change whether children were likely to have food allergies.
- Breast-fed babies have slightly healthier diets later in childhood. However, they are just as likely to eat sweets and snacks as children who were bottle-fed.
- Infants who were given sugar-sweetened beverages in infancy had twice the risk of obesity as older children and adults.
- If babies don’t eat many fruits and vegetables, they are less likely to eat them when they are 6 years old.
- If babies were bottle-fed (either with formula or pumped breast milk), their mothers were more likely to try to get them to finish their food when they were 6 years old.
The bottom line is that good — and bad — eating habits start early. It’s less a matter of breast-feeding versus bottle-feeding. It’s more about starting healthy eating habits right from the start. For instance:
- Don’t give children juices or sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Start giving fruits and vegetables when children are babies, and not just in baby food from jars.
- Food should be properly cut into pieces smaller than the size of a pea. Pieces of solid food larger than that can get stuck in a baby’s windpipe.
- Don’t give a baby nuts, popcorn or hard candies.
- Sticky, gooey foods such as gummy candies, marshmallows and even peanut butter can be hard for a baby to swallow. Avoid giving them.
- Don’t make children finish their food, whether it’s a bottle of formula or the food on their plate. Letting them listen to their own hunger cues can help prevent future obesity.
On that last point, if I wanted to leave the table before finishing what was on my plate when I was a kid, my mother would say, “Remember the starving children in India.” Fortunately, I’m not obese. I think it’s not in spite of my mother’s advice; I think I just inherited good genes from my two slim parents.