A new study from the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that babies who are never or only partially breastfed have an increased risk of becoming obese as children.
The study was led by a team from the National Institute of Health in Lisbon and presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow.
The research paper is part of the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (Cosi).
Overall, experts analysed data from 22 countries and included more than 100,000 six to nine-year-olds.
The research found that, compared with children who were breastfed for six months, children who were never breastfed were 22% more likely to be obese.
Meanwhile, those who were breastfed for less than six months were 12% more likely to be obese.
Data from eight countries showed a similar protective effect against obesity from exclusive breastfeeding as opposed to mixed feeding.
WHO has a 2025 target to globally increase exclusive breastfeeding rates to 50% in the first six months of life.
The authors said: “In general, breastfeeding practices in Europe fall short of WHO recommendations, due to inefficient policies to encourage breastfeeding, lack of preparation of health professionals to support breastfeeding, intensive marketing of breast milk substitutes, and problems in legislation on maternity protection, among others.”
Kate Brintworth, head of maternity transformation at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: “This work contributes to the already strong evidence base about the many benefits of breastfeeding for mother and her baby and reinforces the need to increase the resources that are put into supporting women to begin and maintain breastfeeding for at least the first six months of the baby’s life.
“It is important that we respect a woman’s infant feeding choices”
“This means we need both more specialist breastfeeding support for women after the birth and more time for midwives to offer the support women are telling us they need.
“We know that in the post-natal period many women are saying they don’t feel midwives and midwifery support workers have the time to give them the support that would enable many more to continue breastfeeding.
“However, it is important that we respect a woman’s infant feeding choices, and that if a woman chooses not to breastfeed, for whatever reason, she will need to be supported in that choice.”
The NHS no longer collects routine data on breastfeeding rates.
Data from 2010 shows that 81% of women started breastfeeding but only 1% were still exclusively breastfeeding after six months.
Dr Giota Mitrou, director of research funding at the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This study adds to the existing evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding.
“In addition to providing health benefits to babies, it also helps prevent breast cancer in mothers.
“One of our top recommendations for preventing cancer is for women, where possible, to breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months.
“This will provide huge health benefits for both baby and mother.”