Babies who are breastfed (search) early in life may avoid weight problems when they grow up, a new study suggests.

Breastfeeding has many benefits for mothers and babies alike, but it’s not always comfortable or possible. Some women breastfeed exclusively, some use formula, and others use each at different times. Ultimately, it’s up to each family to weigh the options and come up with their best solution.

The new study, published in the Nov. 5 edition of the journal Pediatrics, shows that mothers who breastfeed their babies early on are less likely to report restricting food intake in them at age 1. The researchers included Matthew Gillman, MD, SM, of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health.

Gillman and colleagues studied more than 1,100 pairs of mothers and infants. The women were asked how they fed their babies during the first six months of life and how long they breastfed.

Six months after giving birth, 24 percent of the participants were exclusively breastfeeding and 25 percent breastfed part of the time. Forty-one percent had weaned their babies and 10 percent said they had only fed formula to their infants. The average duration of breastfeeding was six months.

When the babies were 1 year old, the mothers were asked if they strongly agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I have to be careful not to feed my child too much.”

That statement was vital to the study’s findings. The researchers used it to identify women who restricted their babies’ food intake at age 1.

“Mothers who fed their infants breast milk in early infancy and who breastfed for longer periods reported less restrictive behavior regarding child feedings at 1 year,” write Gillman and colleagues.

They had predicted that outcome. However, breastfeeding mothers were not more likely to pressure their babies to eat. “We found no association between breastfeeding and maternal pressure on a child’s food intake,” write the researchers.

In theory, breastfeeding may help babies follow their natural hunger cues, which could give the infants more control over their feeding schedule.

“During infancy, it is possible that mothers who breastfeed, compared with parents who bottle-feed, may be more responsive to their infants’ signal in terms of frequency and volume of feedings,” write the researchers.

“In this way, the mothers of breastfeeding infants may develop feeding styles that are less controlling, thereby allowing their infants to learn to self-regulate their energy intake and respond to internal appetite cues.”

It’s too early to know if breastfed babies grow up with appetite control that helps them avoid obesity. Long-term studies are needed for that, say the researchers.

By  Miranda Hitti, reviewed by  Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Taveras, E. Pediatrics, November 2004; vol 114: pp e577-e583. News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.