In a recent study, babies who were breastfed exclusively for six months… (Ricardo DeAratanha/Los…)
A new study suggests that breast milk may not combat common infections of infancy unless it is the exclusive source of food for the first six months of a baby’s life.
That’s right, sleep-deprived new moms: This would mean that you might have to ditch that occasional, sanity-saving bottle of formula if you want to keep the ear infections at bay.
Researchers from the University of Crete followed 926 infants, interviewing their mothers in the first year of the babies' lives, at 1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 months of age. They recorded whether the babies were breastfed and for how long, and if and when the babies also ate other liquids or solid food. Over the course of the year, the team tracked which children contracted common infections, such as gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, thrush and respiratory, urinary and ear infections — as well as whether those babies were hospitalized.
Babies who were exclusively breastfed for six months — in accordance with World Health Organization recommendations — experienced “fewer infectious episodes than their partially breastfed or non-breastfed peers,” according to the researchers’ findings, which were published online Tuesday in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. The infections the exclusively breastfed babies contracted were less severe, as well.
A shorter duration of exclusive breastfeeding offered less protection, and partial breastfeeding “had no substantial protective effect,” the researchers found. It’s potentially compelling stuff, but this won’t be the final word on breastfeeding. As noted in this controversial and well-reported essay on breastfeeding from 2009, the antibodies in breast milk don’t enter a baby’s bloodstream. Scientists don’t really understand how breastfeeding might boost a baby’s immune system.
What’s more, it has been hard in studies to separate the effects of breastfeeding itself from the effects of the circumstances in which many breastfed babies are raised (i.e., more comfortable ones.) Maybe breastfed babies are more robust simply because it’s usually wealthier, healthier mothers who choose to nurse their babies.
Or perhaps not. The babies studied in Crete all had access to adequate healthcare — including state-funded vaccinations — so socioeconomic differences may not have effected this study to the same extent. Without a doubt, we’ll be hearing more.
-- Eryn Brown / Los Angeles Times