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Breastfeeding May Not Play a Role in Preventing Obesity

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 09:56 AM EDT

Breastfeeding has previously been thought to prevent against obesity in babies and in children. Experts thought that link existed because children were able to stop eating when they were full, rather than being forced to finish a bottle when they were no longer hungry. However, a recent study suggests that link may not exist at all.

The study was performed by researchers from Harvard University in the United States and McGill University in Canada, according to TIME. They examined 15,000 women in Belarus because, in 1996, at the time that this study began, breastfeeding was not popular among Belarusian mothers. In order to control for confounding factors, mothers were assigned to two groups: those who had given birth in "Baby-Friendly" hospitals that strongly encourage and help mothers breastfeed, and those that were indifferent to the process.

Three months afterward, 43 percent of babies in the first group were breastfeeding, while just six percent of babies in the second one were. Researchers followed up with the babies at the three-month mark, six-month mark, six and a half years and 11 and a half years.

The babies did receive a benefit from breastfeeding. In the years afterward, they had fewer gastrointestinal infections, less eczema and scored seven and a half points higher on IQ tests than the kids who did not breastfeed. However, there was no statistically significant difference in the amount of dental cavities, allergies, asthma rate of being overweight and obese, BMI or waist circumference. About 15 percent of kids in both groups were considered overweight, while five percent in each were considered obese.

Researchers believe that the findings of other studies existed because the profiles of mothers who breastfeed in the United States are so different than mothers who don't, which contributes to a number of factors. For example, 90 percent of mothers with college degrees breastfeed, while 30 percent of mothers without them do. In addition, mothers base their feedings on the babies' weight; it is possible that breastfed babies weighed more from the start, and thus were fed less food.

Regardless of its effect on the obesity epidemic, breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health Organization, for six months at least, and for up to two years if necessary.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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