Decreasing Obesity Risks in Children: Another Benefit of Breastfeeding

This post was authored by Sarah Keogh and posted to The Eye Opener on March 25th, 2011.

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In the United States today, one of the major health problems is obesity. The CDC reports that “[i]n 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%.”  The number of both adults and children who are obese is huge and continues to rise dramatically.  The CDC website provides maps that show just how prevalent this problem is in our country. Particularly troubling is that “[t]hirty-three states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%; nine of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%).  This represents an enormous number of people in our country who are at risk for major health complications, such as “cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.”

While there has been an emphasis in our country on various ways to decrease these obesity statistics (including improving nutrition and increasing exercise), I wonder whether additional emphasis should be paid to children being given a great start to health. A recent article in the Baltimore Sun caught my attention. The article explains how diabetic moms, including those who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy but are not otherwise diabetic, are both more likely to give birth to a larger than average baby and also how their child is “more likely to become obese in childhood.”  The good news, the article explains, is that:

…a new study says that if you breastfeed your baby for at least six months, your child will be no more likely to put on weight than those whose moms are not diabetic.

This is just one more example of how breastfeeding for at least six months can dramatically improve your child’s chances of lifelong health.  Through breastfeeding alone, these moms can erase the increased risk that these children will become obese.

What they found appears to be a real advantage for breastfeeding: If the babies had been breastfed for six months or more, children born to diabetic moms looked nearly the same as the children of non-diabetic moms. And they were no more likely to be obese.

On the other hand, children who were breastfed for less than six months — and who had been exposed to diabetes in the womb — had significantly higher BMIs, thicker waists and stored more fat around their midsections than the other children in the study.

While I was excited to read about one more reason to support breastfeeding, I was concerned about whether this is a realistic choice for many families in our country.  Many moms who are committed to breastfeeding their children and who are successful at the start, do not continue breastfeeding for at least six months. The CDC Breastfeeding Report Card for 2010 says that “…3 out of every 4 new mothers in the United States now starts out breastfeeding… However, rates of breastfeeding at 6 and 12 months as well as rates of exclusive breastfeeding at 3 and 6 months remain stagnant and low.”  The national average is that while 75% of moms have breastfed, only 43% are breastfeeding at all at 6 months and only a mere 13.3% are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months.  At 3 months, a time when infants would not have started solid food, only 33% of moms are still exclusively breastfeeding.  This means that there is a large drop off from what moms do when their babies are born and what they are doing by the time their babies reach 3 months.

However, the study about diabetes found that at least six months of breastfeeding was essential in protecting these kids from the increased risks of obesity. From both personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I suspect that many families are facing hard decisions about employment and breastfeeding. I suspect that a significant part of the large drop off between the numbers of moms’ breastfeeding at birth and those breastfeeding exclusively at 3 months has to do with employment. Given that the US lags so far behind other countries in paid parental leave, most moms have no choice but to go back to work full-time by the time their infants are 3 months (if not earlier).  Many moms face no choice at that point but to stop or severely limit breastfeeding, as few employers offer the time, space or scheduling to truly make moms successful at the difficult job of trying to pump while working.

I believe that the health care costs of treating individuals with obesity and all of the associated health problems should be examined against the costs of providing more complete support to new families.  What do you think?  Could employers better support breastfeeding in an attempt to increase the number of healthy children whose risks of obesity are lowered? Do you think that lack of paid leave or increased support in the workplace for breastfeeding is really the reason for decreased breastfeeding or are there other factors at play?



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One Response to “Decreasing Obesity Risks in Children: Another Benefit of Breastfeeding”

  1. I felt compelled to chime in on this topic as I happily breastfed for 11 months. It was an incredible experience for me and my daughter on many levels – emotional and health wise. But, with that in mind, I don’t believe breastfeeding has anything to do with preventing obesity later in life. Poor eating habits and lack of exercise are the major contributors to obesity at any stages of life. So many of us need to find something to blame their health problems on rather than looking at what they are putting into their bodies and the energy they expend every day. There is a simple formula; calories in vs. calories out. Did I mention that I also have heart problems (which necessitated surgery 4 years ago) and had gestational diabetes during my pregnancy, requiring insulin shots, and am now a type 2 diabetic? Perinatologists will tell you that a large number of women that experience gestational diabetes will develop type 2 diabetes 15-20 years later. Well, for me it never went away. I’m not overweight (well, I could probably lose a maximum of 10 pounds, but at 5 feet tall every pound makes a difference), nor do I stuff myself full of crummy processed food. I exercise as often as I can, which isn’t my favorite thing, but a necessity. I blame my health woes on the crummy genes that I inherited (heart problems and diabetes run rampant on my father’s side of the family; him included). As I said, I am not the “typical” person you would ever expect to have diabetes, and we all have a picture in our mind of what that “typical” person looks like. Right?

    As for my daughter’s birth weight, she arrived healthy and perfect at 6lbs 15oz. She was not a baby suffering from macrosomia. Why? Because I started parenting from the day I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t eat anything that contained food dyes, or deli meat, fish or certain cheeses or sushi, etc., etc. I did everything possible to have a healthy pregnancy, including going to the gym 3-5 times a week up until 2 weeks before I gave birth. While my workout regimen was light, I was still active.

    As for my now 6 ½ year old daughter’s present size (and I do NOT attribute this to breastfeeding, but rather genetics) she has been blessed with my husband’s tall/thin build (thank goodness) rather than my short gymnast body – she looks nothing like me. I admit, it is harder for me to keep weight off and I am thrilled that my daughter won’t ever have the struggles that I do. As a family, we eat fairly healthy (fish, poultry, lots of fruits and veggies, sushi, hummus, etc.) and allow the usual modicum of treats (Wednesday and Fridays are dessert nights at our house). We are an active family and encourage our daughter to play outside (when Maryland weather permits) rather than park in front of a TV or video game. I don’t cook a separate meal of macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets. She eats what we eat as I refuse to be a short order cook. I also don’t make her “clean her plate.” We ask her if her “tummy is happy”, and if so, then she may be finished eating her meal. So, while I support breastfeeding 100%, for a number of reasons, I don’t think it has a thing to do with obesity.

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