The protective effects of breastfeeding in a national UK survey
The wider benefits of breastfeeding for health and illness prevention are well recognised. However, recent evidence of the public health importance of breastfeeding in large representative UK studies is lacking. The present study aimed to measure the effect of breastfeeding on infant health in over 15,000 healthy term infants recruited into the UK Millennium Cohort Study. The outcomes considered were developmental delay, and hospitalisation for diarrhoeal and respiratory infections. In the analysis, consideration was given to separating the effects of partial and exclusive breastfeeding, current and past breastfeeding, milk feeding and solids, examining dose response effects, and adjusting for a range of potential confounders.
- Breastfeeding, particularly when it was exclusive and prolonged, was associated with significantly less infection compared with formula feeding. For example, an estimated 53% of hospitalisations for diarrhoea and 27% of hospitalisations for respiratory infection could have been prevented each month by exclusive breastfeeding.
- Infants receiving breast milk as their only source of milk are at a lower risk of hospitalisation for these infections, but this reduction in risk does not appear to be altered by the introduction of solids.
- Children who have been breastfed are more likely to reach gross motor developmental milestones at age 9 months than those who have not been breastfed, although an effect observed on fine motor developmental milestones disappeared after adjustment for confounders.
- Taken together, these findings suggest that breastfeeding has important benefits on infant health and motor development.