Babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life contract significantly fewer infections than babies fed from bottles, and get less sick even when they do get infected, according to a study published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
“This research is very welcome and adds to the growing weight of evidence about the many benefits of breastfeeding,” said Janet Fyle of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Midwives.
Researchers followed 926 new mothers and their infants for the first 12 months, tracking infections and breastfeeding habits. All participants lived in Greece and had access to high-quality health care throughout the study.
In contrast with the low breastfeeding rates found in the United States, 91 percent of infants in the study were exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life (as recommended by all major world health bodies). These infants were significantly less likely to acquire infections during their first year than infants who had been bottle fed, or who had been fed both breast milk and formula. When breast-fed children did contract infections, their illness was less severe than that experienced by bottle-fed children.
These associations remained strong even after adjusting for potentially confounding factors including number of siblings or tobacco smoke exposure.
“Mothers should be advised by health professionals that, in addition to all the other benefits, exclusive breastfeeding helps prevent infections in babies and lessens the frequency and severity of infectious episodes,” the researchers wrote.
Although health experts agree that breastfeeding is best for mothers and infants, mothers in many nations still face many obstacles to exclusive breastfeeding, including short maternity leaves and even social stigma.
“We know that breastfeeding is the default method of infant feeding for babies; good for mothers and good for the health of the nation,” Fyle said. “That is why we need to continue our efforts to ensure that we maintain a high rate of breastfeeding in the United Kingdom … and to move away from some of the outdated and negative stigma that is depressingly still attached to it, specifically breastfeeding in public.”