The Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health has carried out a review of recent meta-analyses of evidence related to the long term impact of early cessation of breastfeeding (prior to 6 months) on a range of conditions which affect long term health: maternal and infant obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease including raised blood pressure, some childhood cancers including leukaemia, breast cancer in mothers, a range of digestive diseases and allergies such as asthma. They then presented the findings as an estimation of the approximate impact on the proportion of chronic disease in Australia associated with patterns of feeding since 1927.

After adjustment for major confounding variables, current research suggests that the risks of chronic disease are 30-200% higher in those who were not breastfed. If breastfeeding rates were to improve to Australia’s target levels of around 80% for 6 months this would result in a reduction in the proportion of attributable chronic disease in the population to 4-18%. The paper combines the findings of the meta-analyses searched and suggests a relative risk reduction for each condition – for example the search on obesity produced 5 meta-analyses and the relative risk for obesity or overweight was found to be 11-28% higher for artificially fed infants than those who were breastfed.

The authors acknowledge that there are many methodological issues in infant feeding research, however they argue that these flaws are most likely to underestimate the risk of artificial feeding in the context of how breastfeeding is defined. Although the average effects are modest, current widespread practice of premature weaning means that relatively small effects from improving breastfeeding rates have a potentially large impact on population health.

Smith JP, Harvey PJ. (2010) Chronic disease and infant nutrition: is it significant to public health? Public Health Nutrition. Published online 13.7.2010