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Breastfeeding Keeps Some of the Bugs Away

WebMD Health News

Jan. 23, 2001 -- Add another line to the growing list of reasons why breastfeeding is better than the bottle. New research shows that breastfeeding during a baby's first year may help lower the risk of gastrointestinal, or GI, tract infections, which affect the stomach and intestines, and atopic eczema, a common skin condition that affects around 10% of all infants and children.

Over the past few years, a number of studies have shown that breastfed babies have lower rates of infection, as well as other health benefits. However, most of the studies have been observational, meaning that they have not compared two groups side by side, such as breastfed and bottle-fed babies.

But in the newest study, the results of which are reported in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers looked at two groups of new mothers who opted to breastfeed -- those who were part of an experimental breastfeeding promotion group and those who did the usual infant feeding practices. They found that not only were the women in the experimental group more likely to breastfeed for an entire year, but their babies had significantly fewer GI infections and atopic eczema.

"This study confirms information that we've seen in observational trials," says Francine Nichols, RNC, PhD, FAAN. "The benefits of breastfeeding are well established, and basically, babies were designed to breastfeed." Nichols, who was not involved in the study, is a professor and coordinator of women's health at Georgetown University School of Nursing in Washington, D.C.

Lindsey Grossman, MD, chairman of the division of general pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, agrees with Nichols. "This study is of extreme importance," she says. "We now have the strongest evidence to date of the real importance of breastfeeding in prevention of illness in infants." Grossman also was not involved in the study.

A team of Canadian and Belarussian researchers led by Michael Kramer, MD, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University in Quebec, randomly divided more than 17,000 mother and infant pairs in Belarus into two groups. One group received an experimental intervention in which healthcare workers helped and supported the mother with breastfeeding. The other group received the usual care given to new mothers.

The proportion of women who were breastfeeding exclusively was seven times higher in the experimental group at the end of three months. Mothers who hadn't received the extra intervention also were more likely to stop breastfeeding sooner. Babies from the experimental group also were more likely to be breastfed, to some degree, up to their first birthday.

Although the researchers found that the babies in the experimental group suffered fewer GI infections and less eczema, there was no difference between the two groups when it came to respiratory tract infections.

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