In a study of children exposed to diabetes in utero (in the womb), researchers found that babies who were breastfed for at least six months were just as likely of becoming overweight or obese, compared to babies who were not exposed to diabetes in the womb. However, babies who were exposed to diabetes and who were breastfed for less than six months still faced an increased risk of childhood obesity.
According to lead researcher Dr. Dana Dabelea, Associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, these findings suggest that breastfeeding may be an effective way to reduce the risk of obesity among children of mothers with diabetes during pregnancy. As exposure to diabetes in the womb and childhood obesity have been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes in adulthood, adds Dr. Dabelea, it is possible that breastfeeding may also lower children's risk of later developing type 2 diabetes. However, more research is necessary to determine if breastfeeding actually would help protect against type 2 diabetes.
The authors conclude that the period immediately following birth may be a critical time for determining a child's future risk of obesity and diabetes, as the nutritional composition of breastmilk - in addition to the absence of substances in baby formula - may help guide metabolic programming and the body's ability to regulate fat and growth rate.
According to data from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents between two and 19 years of age are obese.
In recent years, many studies have demonstrated the benefits of breastfeeding. In addition to strong evidence that shows breastfeeding may permanently reduce the long-term risk of becoming obese, research has shown that breastfeeding can also decrease the risk of other health complications, including high respiratory infections, asthma, high blood pressure, and type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
The study by Dr. Dabelea and colleagues appears in the February 2011 issue of Diabetes Care.