June 21st, 2010
08:59 AM ET

New study supports exclusive breastfeeding for first six months

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

New research provides more evidence that when moms exclusively breastfeed their newborns and infants for the first six months of life, they can signficantly reduce their baby's risk of serious lung and intestinal infections.

Researchers in the Netherlands looked at data from more than 4000 infants. They found that babies who were exclusively breastfed for more than four months had a "significant reduction of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases in infants."  They also found that being breastfed until six months of age seemed to be even more protective and even appeared to reduce the number of infections for the next six months of the child's life.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday.

The benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months – where a baby is only given breast milk, no formula or solid food or fruit juice or even water – have been known for a while.  In this study, the benefits of breastfeeding come from what's in the breast milk (which can be fed to the baby by nursing or pumping the milk and then bottle-feeding the infant).

Breast milk not only provides all the nutrients a baby needs but moms are also passing along antibodies,which help protect their little ones from infections that cause diarrhea and pneumonia, the two leading causes of child mortality worldwide according to the World Health Organization. More than 1 million child deaths could be avoided each year if more babies were exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life according to the WHO website.

"We've had various evidence for years that infectious diseases are minimized," says the Dr. Ruth Lawrence, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding. "But we haven't had as much data in a developed country." Lawrence says this new study confirms what the AAP and WHO already recommend – breastfeed six months exclusively if possible.

In addition to the WHO and AAP, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all recommend exclusive breastfeeding of infants until approximately six months of age.

However, according to the CDC's 2009 breastfeeding report card, while nearly three-quarters of babies nationwide start out being breastfed, only one-third of moms were exclusively breastfeeding their babies at three months and only 14 percent were still exclusively breastfeeding at six months.

Pediatricians recognize the challenges new moms face. "It really takes a lot of dedication from the mom's standpoint [to breastfeed] day in and day out for six months," says Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.  Esper and Lawrence as well as the CDC and WHO agree more needs to be done to help mothers continue to breastfeed in the United States and worldwide.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.