Breastfeeding reduces child obesity risk by up to 25%, WHO finds

Home > Breastfeeding reduces child obesity risk by up to 25%, WHO finds

30 April 2019

A World Health Organization (WHO) study of 16 countries across Europe has found that breastfeeding can cut the chances of a child becoming obese by up to 25%.

WHO calls for curbs on the marketing of formula milk which, said senior author Dr João Breda, misled women into thinking breast was not necessarily better.

In absolute terms, 16.8% of children who were never breastfed were obese, compared with 13.2% who had been breastfed at some time and 9.3% of children breastfed for six months or more.

After adjustment for demographics, children who were never breastfed were 22% more likely to be obese and those who had been breastfed for less than six months were 12% more likely to be obese than children who were breastfed for six months. The protection for children who were exclusively breastfed for six months – with no formula or weaning foods involved – was even higher, at 25%. The data came from nearly 30,000 children monitored as part of the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance initiative (Cosi).

WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and thereafter alongside complementary foods for up to two years and beyond. But UK breastfeeding rates are low; although 81% of mothers in the UK begin to breastfeed, by six weeks that has fallen to 24% in England, 17% in Wales and 13% in Northern Ireland according to the latest data, from 2010. By six months, only 1% are exclusively breastfeeding, although 34% are still doing some breastfeeding.

WHO’s paper, presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow and published in the journal Obesity Facts, says there are a number of reasons breastfeeding would protect children from obesity. Exclusive breastfeeding delays the introduction of solid food, which may be high in energy. There is also some evidence that babies fed formula have higher insulin levels in their blood which can stimulate fat deposition.

Our Programme Director, Sue Ashmore, said: “Human milk – breast milk – is specifically designed for human babies. Not only does it act as baby’s first vaccine, protecting against infections, but it also affects long-term health, including acting as the first defence against the epidemic of obesity.

“In the UK we have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world … In addition, infant feeding is a highly emotive subject because so many families have not breastfed or have experienced the trauma of trying very hard to breastfeed and not been able to. We need more support to help new mothers learn breastfeeding skills, and policies in place that will help them to continue breastfeeding through the first year of life.”

Our Call to Action campaign calls on UK governments to take key steps to better support mothers to breastfeed for as long as they wish. Find out more and add your voice.