June 21, 2010 -- Babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first four months of life and partially thereafter have a reduced risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, but six months on the breast alone is even better, new research indicates.
Researchers in the Netherlands analyzed questionnaires available for 4,164 mothers, looking at breastfeeding habits in the following six categories:
- never breastfed
- partial breastfeeding for less than four months and not thereafter
- partial breastfeeding for four to six months
- exclusive breastfeeding for four months and not thereafter
- exclusive breastfeeding for four months and partial thereafter
- exclusive breastfeeding for six months
Then they looked at doctor-attended infections in the upper and lower respiratory tracts and the gastrointestinal system.
Among the findings:
- Infants breastfed exclusively until four months of age and partially thereafter had lower risks of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections in the first 6 months after birth, compared to never-breastfed infants.
- Infants breastfed exclusively for four months and then only partially thereafter also had reduced lower respiratory tract infections between the ages of 7-12 months.
- Partial breastfeeding, whether for the first four months or first six months, did not result in significantly lower risks of the infections studied.
- Infants who were breastfed exclusively for six months had lower risks of upper respiratory tract infections, lower respiratory tract infections, and infections of the gastrointestinal tract.
“Exclusive breastfeeding until the age of four months and partially thereafter was associated with a significant reduction of respiratory and gastrointestinal morbidity in infants,” the researchers report in the July print issue of Pediatrics, published online June 21. “Our findings support health-policy strategies to promote exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months but preferably six months in industrialized countries.”
The findings are important because respiratory and gastrointestinal tract infections are the leading cause of illness in children.
The researchers found that when looking at duration of breastfeeding: 29% of infants were breastfed for less than four months; 25% were breastfed for four to six months; and 34% were breastfed for six months or more.
Most of the infants were deemed to have not been exclusively breastfed. Only 1.4% of infants were judged to have been breastfed exclusively for at least six months.
The researchers say their findings are in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendation that infants be breastfed exclusively until at least 6 months old.