By Pearl Philip, MD
What you feed your child in his or her first year of life could very well predict their health habits at age 6, according to a new report from researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The findings provide a lens to understanding childhood obesity rates, which have more than doubled in the past 30 years.
The researchers surveyed more than 1,500 mothers and concluded that children who were breastfed for longer periods as infants tended to eat more healthily at age 6 - drinking more water, eating more fruits and vegetables, and indulging in fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
Moreover, the children whose parents introduced them earlier to healthful foods between 6 months and a year of age tended to continue to enjoy a healthier diet later on. For example, when mothers fed their children a sugar-sweetened beverages or juice during the first year of life, their children were twice as likely to drink sugar-sweetened beverages at age 6.
The study was published today in a special supplement of the journal Pediatrics.
"Seeing these relationships between early feeding and later health really emphasizes the importance of following the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics," said Kelly Scanlon, one of the CDC researchers who authored the study. These recommendations urge exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by continued breastfeeding until the infant is a least 1 year old. They also suggest that parents introduce complimentary foods starting at six months that are healthy and nutrient rich.
The findings underscore a simple fact that is gaining traction in the field of childhood nutrition: preference for flavor in a child begins early. And it can even begin in the womb, some research suggests.
Scanlon said that breast milk, too, exposes infants to a variety of flavors, which studies have shown makes them more accepting than formula-fed infants of various flavors.
Childhood nutrition experts not involved with the study said the findings provide additional weight to the importance of shaping a child's diet early. Dr. David Katz, editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said the findings serve to underscore the long-established relationship between breastfeeding and health in mothers and children.
"The question we need to be asking is not 'Why should mothers breastfeed?' but, 'Why shouldn't they?'" Katz said. "For all mammals, our first food is breast milk."
The study also points to other benefits of breast feeding. Kids who breast fed for longer in infancy tended to have a lower risk of ear, throat and sinus infections at age 6. The study also noted that mothers may have much to gain - or lose, in this case - as obese mothers who adhered to breastfeeding recommendations retained about 18 pounds less than obese women who did not breastfeed once their children reached the age of 6.
This new study is only the latest in a growing body of research that suggests that there are things that mothers (and fathers) can do when their children are still very young to set them on the right path to healthy behaviors later. For women, this means breastfeeding your child if possible according to AAP guidelines. And for both parents, it means introducing your child early to the nutritious foods that will benefit their health both now and later on in life - while avoiding the ones that are likely to lead to obesity and other health problems.