May 1, 2003 -- There is growing evidence that the first foods babies eat influence their later risk for heart disease. Studies indicate that breastfed infants have lower blood pressures later in life than children fed baby formula, and now new research shows that infants fed fat-fortified baby formulas have lower blood pressure later in childhood.
The baby formulas, which contain the long chain fatty acids DHA and ARA, have been available in the United States for a little over a year. Naturally present in breast milk, these fatty acids are believed to enhance brain and vascular development. This has been shown to be the case in studies involving preterm infants fed the fat-fortified baby formulas, but the evidence is less conclusive for full-term infants.
"I don't think there is any question that breast milk is the best choice for infant feeding," pediatrician J. Stewart Forsyth, MD, tells WebMD. "But if a mother cannot or chooses not to breastfeed, then the evidence is mounting that she should give her baby a formula that contains these fatty acids."
Forsyth and colleagues from Scotland's Tayside Institute of Child Health set out to determine if fatty acid supplementation of full-term infants influenced blood pressure later in childhood. A total of 136 children who had been formula fed as infants and 83 children who had been breastfed were included in the study, published in the May 3 issue of the British Medical Journal.
Roughly half of the formula-fed infants were given fat-fortified baby formulas for at least the first four months of life, and the other half received regular formulas without the fatty acids. Blood pressures were measured six years later in all of the children.
The researchers found that blood pressures were significantly lower in the children fed fatty acid-fortified formulas as infants, compared with those fed unfortified baby formulas. Diastolic readings(the lower number on blood pressure readings) averaged 3.6 points lower in the fat-fortified formula group but were similar to that of the breastfed children.
Several baby formula marketers in the United States now offer baby formulas fortified with DHA and ARA. They tend to cost more than unfortified formulas, and early nutrition expert William C. Heird, MD, says he is not convinced they are worth the money for full-term infants.
"Other than cost, there is no reason not to choose them," he tells WebMD. "They may offer advantages for full-term infants, but we don't really know that yet. But if these formulas are purchased at the expense of an educational toy or book or something else that will stimulate development, that may not be the wisest use of a parent's money."
Heird says the best way a mother can make sure her infant gets the nutrition it needs is by breastfeeding. He adds that more studies like this one are needed to determine whether fatty acids or some other component of breast milk influence heart disease risk. Heird is a professor of pediatrics at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and a researcher at Baylor's USDA/ARS Nutrition Research Center.
"I don't think the studies in breastfed and formula-fed babies answers this question," he says. "There is reason to believe that early supplementation has a long-term effect on health, but we just don't know."
Mead Johnson, a maker of infant formula, is a WebMD sponsor.