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Breastfeeding Keeps Some of the Bugs Away

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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.

"The real and clear message is that breastfeeding -- especially prolonged breastfeeding -- affects child health, particularly in the area of gastrointestinal infections and atopic eczema in the first year of life," writes Ruth A. Lawrence, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, in an editorial accompanying the study.

Since the healthcare system in Belarus is very different to that in the U.S., Lawrence points out that there are some difficulties in making comparisons to breastfeeding in North America. "Mothers [in Belarus] remain in the hospital five-seven days [after delivery]," she writes, "which allows for more time to assure the successful establishment of breastfeeding."

Women in Belarus also are obligated to take a maternity leave of about three years; as a result, there are no day care centers available. This may be part of the reason that the rate of respiratory infections was the same for both groups, writes Lawrence, as infants are kept in the protective environment of their home rather than exposed to infections at day care centers.

Despite the differences in the region, Nichols feels that we can still apply what was learned from the study. "We can't really generalize this information because the moms stay in the hospital so much longer, and that can contribute to better breast feeding," she says. "But looking at it from a scientific point of view, it still provides clear evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial, and that the baby-friendly approach is effective in increasing the duration and frequency of breastfeeding as well as reducing eczema and reducing GI problems."

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