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Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Study Finds that Breast-feeding Must be Sustained to Reduce Obesity Risk in Preschool Children

Researchers led by a Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh pediatrician have found that breast-feeding for at least four months reduces the risk of obesity in some children by 30 percent. The researchers found that in order to reduce the risk of obesity, mothers must breast-feed for at least four months without using formula or for at least six months in conjunction with formula.

In one of the largest studies to examine the link between breast-feeding and obesity, researchers from Children's and Mathematica Policy Research Inc. studied more than 73,000 low-income children. Previous studies have established an association between breast-feeding and a reduced risk of obesity, but until now it has been unclear how long a mother must breast-feed to reduce her child's risk. It has also been unclear whether there is a benefit to children who are both breast-fed and formula fed.

Led by Debra Bogen, MD, a Children's pediatrician, researchers found that children of white mothers who did not smoke during pregnancy were 30 percent less likely to be obese at age 4 if they were breast-fed exclusively for at least four months. Study results are being published in the latest issue of Obesity Research, a journal published by the North American Association for the Study of Obesity.

"While breast-feeding may prevent childhood obesity, we have found that children must be breast-fed without added formula for at least four months in order to reduce the risk of obesity. Currently in the United States, few women are breast-feeding long enough to have an impact on childhood obesity," Dr. Bogen said. "We need to change social and health policies in order to support breast-feeding for a longer period of time if we are going to have an impact on the incidence of obesity through breast-feeding."

Dr. Bogen, Barbara Hanusa, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Robert C. Whitaker, MD, MPH, a senior fellow at Mathematica, prospectively studied children enrolled in the Ohio Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Among preschool children who were breast-fed for at least four months without formula or at least six months with formula, the risk of obesity was reduced 30-45 percent. However, this benefit of breast-feeding was found only among white children whose mothers did not smoke during pregnancy. Less than 10 percent of the children in the study were breast-fed long enough to receive the benefit. Nearly 12 percent of children in the study were considered obese, as measured by having a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile.

"While no one knows the reason why breast-feeding may protect against obesity, it is possible that breast-feeding, compared to bottle feeding, allows infants to have more self-control over when they eat and how much they eat," Dr. Whitaker said. "Allowing infants to regulate their own food intake early in brain development may be important for establishing long-term patterns of healthy appetite regulation."

Marc Lukasiak, 412-692-5016,
Melanie Finnigan, 412-692-5016,

Last Update
February 19, 2008
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Last Update
February 19, 2008