WHO study finds breastfeeding could reduce childhood obesity

There is no doubt that the question of breast- or bottle-feeding is a personal choice to be made individually by the mother of every child and that whatever a woman chooses to do in these circumstances should be respected.

Whether she chooses to “go natural” or to use formula milk will depend on her own unique experiences and circumstances, including her health and that of the child.

However, debate, discussion and scientific research are essential if we are to continually improve early years outcomes, and the latest piece of World Health Organisation (WHO) research into the links between breast- and bottle-feeding and later life obesity represent an important addition to the subject.

Breastfeeding has a ‘Protective’ Effect

According to research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that was published in 2019, breastfeeding has a ‘protective’ effect against children being overweight or obese in the future.

The study, which tracked the lives of 30,000 children across 16 European countries and charted both their weights and details of whether they were breast- or bottle-fed, concluded that if babies are exclusively bottle-fed, they have 25 per cent greater likelihood of suffering from obesity in later life. In some countries, chances of obesity were increased by as much as 90 per cent; the children of mothers who combined breast- with bottle-feeding were 12 per cent more likely to be obese (when compared with exclusively breastfed babies).

“Breastfeeding has a really strong protective effect. The evidence is there. The benefit is outstanding so we should be telling people,” commented Dr Joao Breda, head of the WHO European office for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.

The WHO study closely follows a recent Washington State University study which found exercise in pregnancy to also have a protective effect against obesity in children.

Why could formula milk be linked to obesity?

Formula milk is usually derived from cow’s milk. This means that a component of any formula has evolved over time to specifically meet the needs of cows, which, although mammals, are different from the metabolic needs of babies. It is thought that the types and levels of protein in the cow’s milk may promote the growth of fat cells.

The Situation in the UK

According to Public Health England, in recent years there has been a decline in the number of women who breastfeed their babies beyond six weeks of age – down from 43.8 per cent in 2014-2015 to 42.7 per cent in 2017/2018, while approximately only one per cent of babies in Britain are exclusively breastfed beyond six months.

If Breast is Best, Why Doesn’t Everyone Do it?

Breastfeeding is acknowledged by WHO, the NHS and the American Academy of Pediatrics as the healthiest option for babies.

However, not all mothers have either the same physical or emotional capability to feed a newborn, so it is important that we continue to encourage breastfeeding while also respecting the circumstances and choices of all mothers.

It is also important to remember that whatever the health benefits of breastfeeding, there are situations where these benefits may be negated by additional factors. For example, bottle-feeding can be done by fathers, grandparents and other carers, which, may be the only option if a mother is unwell or has to return to work. Furthermore, bottle-feeding can be suitable for mothers who travel and have difficulty expressing or who might have anxiety issues related to how much milk their child is taking. As a general rule, breast may be best but, as with most general rules, there are exceptions.

Information from My BabyManual

Breastfeeding your child can be a bonding experience, but it’s not for everyone. For further information on breastfeeding and bottle-feeding, you can read Dr Isobel Neville’s article on the first seven days with your newborn. Our Early Years section also has resources that may help you help you negotiate the feeding process.