Weaning policy queried as study finds breastfeeding risks

Melanie Defries
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Feeding a baby exclusively on breast milk for the first six months of life could be linked to a higher risk of anaemia, food allergies and coeliac disease, according to a report published in the British Medical Journal.

Current guidelines say that weaning should occur at six months, but an evidence review of breastfeeding studies conducted by researchers at University College London's Institute of Child Health says that it may be better for some children to be introduced to solid foods from as early as four months old.

The Department of Health guidelines were adopted in 2003, following recommendations made by the World Health Organisation. However, the UCL report says that there was 'surprisingly little' scrutiny of the evidence base for such a 'major change' in public health policy.

Since the Government guidelines changed, the mean age for the introduction of solids increased from 15 weeks in 2000 to 19 weeks in 2005, according to the UK 2005 Infant Feeding Survey.

The WHO recommendation was based on a review of studies conducted prior to 2001, which found that exclusive breastfeeding for six months was associated with no growth deficits and fewer infections. However, the UCL study claims that the way that many of the trials were conducted meant that researchers could not prove that this was due to breastfeeding and not other factors.

Studies published since 2007 suggest that six months exclusive breastfeeding could be linked with iron deficiency, the report says. It warns that any adverse effects on iron levels of children who are exclusively breast fed are likely to be missed in the UK because the country has no screening policy for iron deficiency.

The review, 'Six months of exclusive breast feeding: how good is the evidence?', also suggests that there may be a link between exclusive breastfeeding and allergies. While many developed countries restrict and delay exposure to allergenic foods, such as peanuts, cows' milk, egg, fish, gluten, peanuts and seeds, countries where peanuts are commonly used as weaning foods, such as Israel, have low incidences of peanut allergy.

Some health organisations have defended the current advice.

Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said, 'I believe this is a retrograde step and plays into the hands of the baby-food industry. There is evidence that some babies do die in developed countries from inappropriate feeding, such as the introduction of solid foods before their swallowing mechanism is mature enough or they have fully developed the capability to cope with solid foods'.


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