Breast-fed babies weaned later have less risk of obesity


CHILDREN WHO are breast-fed and weaned on to solid foods later have a much lower risk of obesity at nine years of age, according to research published today.

The study, in the journal of Social Science and Medicine, used data from Growing Up in Ireland, a Government-funded study following almost 20,000 children and their families.

The new study by Dr Cathal McCrory and Prof Richard Layte of the Economic and Social Research Institute found that children who had been breast-fed for three to six months were 38 per cent less likely to be obese at nine years of age compared to exclusively formula-fed children.

Those breast-fed for six months or more were 51 per cent less likely to be obese. The researchers said the results had been adjusted to take many factors into account, including parental weight, frequency of hard exercise, maternal education and class.

International research has found that children who are breast-fed gain height and weight more slowly than those who are bottle-fed. Rapid weight gain in early life has links with childhood obesity, and cardiovascular disease and diabetes in adulthood.

Previous research using the Growing Up in Ireland data found that breast-fed infants and those weaned on to solid foods later are less likely to experience rapid weight gain and have a lower risk of obesity by the age of three.

About one in four nine-year-olds in Ireland is overweight or obese. The pattern is similar for three-year-olds: 19 per cent are overweight and 6 per cent obese.

Ireland has the lowest breastfeeding rate in Europe. Some 55 per cent of new mothers in Ireland breast-feed to some extent but only 38 per cent are still breastfeeding after a month. Less than 15 per cent are still breast-feeding by six months.

The World Health Organisation recommends that children should be exclusively breast-fed where possible and not introduced to solid foods for the first six months of life.

The Growing Up in Ireland study found that almost half of infants were weaned on to solid foods by four months of age and less than a third of children in Ireland were weaned after six months.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said the short-term benefits of breast-feeding were well recognised but this research highlighted the benefits of breast-feeding extended to later life.

“If we are to reverse the worrying trend of childhood obesity in Ireland, promoting and increasing rates of breast-feeding must be part of our policy response,” she said.

Co-author Prof Layte said Ireland had some of the highest rates of child and adult obesity in Europe “and we need to understand the causes better. Our study suggests that early life nutrition may be a key issue for improving health and reducing obesity.”