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New Study: Breast-feeding Delivers Health Benefits for Children

If there were any lingering doubts about how breast-feeding may benefit a child, a new study now puts them to rest. Our health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay tells the story.

There were still doubts about the benefits of breast-feeding, and though they were subtle, they may have had a broad impact. Previous studies of breast-feeding and kids' health were observational studies, a type of study not considered the most powerful evidence of a benefit. This bias against the quality of the previous studies might be a reason that mothers and some doctors would tend to underestimate the health benefits of breast-feeding.

The largest and most carefully done study of breast-feeding and the health of children is reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association this morning.

Researchers looked at 17, 000 women and their new babies in the former Soviet Union. Some underwent a program aimed at encouraging continued breast-feeding. Others in the control group had no intervention. The mothers who participated in the program did indeed breast-feed longer, up to 1 year and beyond compared to those who were not in the program. This had a big impact on the health of their children.

Children who got the most breast milk were 40% less likely to develop digestive tract infections and were also 46% less likely to develop skin rashes like eczema.

Breast-feeding in the short term, that is, for a year, has been shown in this study to prevent several common diseases of childhood, including others not mentioned in this study such as ear infections and asthma. But ongoing studies are also measuring long-term benefits, too, in order to see if breast-fed children develop diabetes or heart disease less often.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a woman breast-feed exclusively for 6 months and continue to breast-feed for 1 year while weaning and adding solids to the diet, and then continue as long as she is comfortable with breast-feeding after that.

American women are increasingly choosing to breast-feed, but still not nearly enough. The goal of the surgeon general in the next decade is to have 75% of mothers who leave the hospital be breast-feeding and to have at least 50% of women still breast-feeding at 6 months.

Right now, US women aren't even close to that and for working moms it's really tough. Working moms in this country on average nurse until 16 weeks, whereas nonworking moms on average nurse to 25 weeks.

There are many reasons why some women in the United States choose not to breast-feed, but without support from doctors, pediatricians, corporations, families and other moms, it can be a challenge. But there really is no question that this is the best thing for our kids, so we've got to keep trying to encourage this.

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