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25 September 2018

Does breastfeeding help prevent childhood obesity?

Will Richard, Communications & Engagement Officer

Breastfeeding may protect against childhood obesity.

baby with bottle
baby with bottle

In the UK a quarter of two-to-five-year olds are overweight or obese. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classify childhood obesity as one of the most serious global health challenges for the 21st century and in 2016 estimated that more than 41 million children under five years old were overweight or obese worldwide.

Although childhood obesity undoubtedly has many causes, there is evidence to suggest that the nutrition that babies of obese women receive while in the womb significantly increases the risk of weight gain in early infancy. The WHO advises all mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and suggests that it 'may protect' against childhood obesity. Despite this advice only 1% of UK mothers do so.

Katie Dalrymple, British Heart Foundation Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Women & Children’s Health, said:

Using data from the UPBEAT trial, we set out to determine how the growth and feeding behaviour of infants born to women with obesity was affected by how they were fed during the first few months of life. This is something that has not been tested before. Prior to our study, there had been a lot of anecdotal support for this hypothesis but little experimental evidence.

Katie Dalrymple

In a study published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, the team from King’s School of Life Course Sciences analysed the feeding habitats and infant body measurements of 353 mother and baby pairs six months after birth.

Formula-fed or mixed-fed babies of obese women were found on average to be heavier (higher weight z-scores), to gain weight faster and to enjoy their food less than babies that were exclusively breastfed. Measures of general appetite in early infancy were also found to be associated with a baby’s body fat, weight and growth, irrespective of their diet.

Professor Lucilla Poston CBE, Tommy's Professor of Maternal & Fetal Health said:

Our study supports the WHO guidelines and suggests that breastfeeding could be an important way of preventing obesity in children of obese women. Given the known association between maternal obesity and obesity in later life of the child these findings strongly support provision of lactation support for obese women who are recognised to have difficulties in breastfeeding. As more women enter pregnancy overweight we need to explore every avenue to protect the health of the next generation.

Professor Lucilla Poston CBE