Researchers believe breastfeeding “programs” babies for a life of good health.
By Jacqueline Tourville
As studies continue to find, breastfeeding reduces a baby’s chances for ever developing diabetes or obesity later in life. And now researchers think they understand why breastfeeding is so important for long-term health, thanks to something called “metabolic programming effect”, or the concept that nutrition very early in life programs a person’s metabolism (how the body uses energy) and health for the future.
As early as 15 days from birth, insulin levels were lower in breastfed infants than in formula-fed infants–showing that nursing babies’ bodies were more efficient at using energy from foods.
In a recent French study, researchers tracked infant growth and development, BMI and blood pressure in three groups of healthy, full-term newborns. In one group, babies were exclusively breastfed for the first four months of life. Infants in the other two other groups were fed baby formula that was either on the low end of the recommended daily protein intake for infants or on the high end for protein intake.
Researchers, who followed these groups of children for three years, found that exclusively breastfed babies seemed to develop different metabolisms compared to formula-fed infants. As early as 15 days from birth, blood insulin levels were lower in breastfed infants than in formula-fed infants–showing that nursing babies’ bodies were more efficient at using glucose (energy) from foods. Differences in metabolism showed up again at 4 months of age, but no differences were seen at 9 months.
Growth patterns were also different between groups during the first year of life, but by 3 years of age, differences in length, weight or BMI had disappeared. But when it came to blood pressure at age 3, researchers did find that that diastolic and overall blood pressures were higher among children who had been fed high-protein formula compared to breastfed babies (and babies fed the lower protein formula), though levels still fell within the normal range.
Researchers believe that the changes they noticed very early on in life–especially when it comes insulin and the body’s ability to use blood glucose–are probably still there, but lurk beneath the surface until later in life when “metabolic programming” shows up in the form of reduced risk for diabetes and obesity. The next step is a longer study that follows these same children into adulthood, according to study co-author Guy Putet, MD.
“It appears that formula feeding induces differences in some hormonal profiles [insulin levels] as well as in patterns of growth compared with breastfeeding,” Dr. Putet said. “The long-term consequences of such changes… may play a role in later health.”
And That’s Not All! More Benefits of Breastfeeding
While studies like this one point to the life-long health benefits reaped by breastfed babies, other benefits of breastfeeding are more immediate. What can you expect right now from your decision to nurse? In short, a lot. According to La Leche League International (LLLI), breastfeeding is protective against a laundry list of childhood illnesses, including painful ear infections, upper and lower respiratory ailments, allergies, colds, viruses, staph, strep and e coli infections, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, salmonella, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
All this doesn’t mean your baby won’t become sick, LLLI experts explain. However, illness is generally less severe and lengthy than if the baby were not receiving his mother’s milk. For both short- and long-term health, nursing your baby at least until his first birthday may your best bet for giving your child’s health a big boost for life.