The research, carried out with Swedish and Estonian children and adolescents, concludes that children who have been breastfed for at least three months show better cardiovascular health profiles than those who have been mainly fed with the feeding bottle. More concretely, children and adolescents who have received prolonged maternal lactation have 6% less cardiovascular risk, making it a more important factor than obesity in the control of cardiovascular health. Moreover, lactating children show better values in aerobic capacity, levels of cholesterol, inflammation or systolic hypertension.
The research was published by Ms Idoia Labayen, lecturer in nutrition in the Pharmacy Faculty at the UPV/EHU, in the January issues of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – the most important in the world of nutrition – and the Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Also taking part in the research was Jonatan Ruiz and Francisco Ortega from the University of Granada and Helle Loit, Jaanus Harro, Inga Villa, Toomas Veidebaum and Michael Sjostrom from the Karolinska Institute.
To carry out the various tests, the research was helped by both Swedish and Estonian medical staff who undertook health examinations on 1,025 children between the ages of 9 and 10 years old, and on 971 adolescents between 15 and 16, in their respective countries. Prior to the research, the mothers were asked if their offspring had been exclusively breastfed and, if so, over what period of time. In the tests, apart from taking certain measurements such as height and weight, a blood analysis was carried out to determine values such as inflammation and fibrinogen, the presence of which is linked to a greater coagulation of the blood and, thus, increases the risk of artherosclerosis. Besides these analyses, the aerobic capacity of the participants was measured by means of stress tests.
This is the first research in which it has been possible to input all these factors, partly because the high financial cost involved in their evaluation, and also because, as in the case of maximum aerobic capacity, this was a risk factor unknown as such until recently. Currently, various pieces of research have demonstrated that the maximum aerobic capacity is a marker for cardiovascular health, and one of the best predictors of mortality amongst individuals of all ages.
Notwithstanding any further research into longer periods of lactation that may confirm these results, this research by Ms Labayen indicates that the maximum benefits of breastfeeding is reached at three months, as no significant differences between the third and the sixth months were observed. Moreover, apart from the sixth month, children do not feed exclusively on milk, diversifying their nutrition. Nevertheless, the WHO and UNICEF recommend that maternal lactation be continued partially over the first three years of life of the child.
Maternal lactation in Spain
This research (with Swedish and Estonian children and adolescents) would have been difficult to undertake in Spain as mothers there do not normally breastfeed after three months; unlike in Scandinavian countries where maternal lactation is encouraged with maternal leave of up to two years as well as health care from nurses who make domiciliary visits in order to help and give advice to mothers about the best way to breastfeed.
In Spain, as Ms Labayen has pointed out, the situation is very different because, “although many mothers try, there is a high rate of failure in the first fifteen days, which could be resolved with suitable advice and support to breastfeeding mothers”. Moreover, she points out, “there are the mothers who have to give up breastfeeding because they have to return to work”. At least, she underlines, “in Spain there are good formula milks, although these do not enhance cardiovascular health”.
Maternal lactation, Ms Labayen stresses “can become a question of life or death in many places in the developing world where problems to do with preparing and sterilising the baby’s bottle can multiply”.
The stable collaboration maintained to date by this European research team has been focused on investigating the influence on health of the moments immediately prior and after childbirth, besides that of maternal lactation. Over the next few months they wish to focus their research on children who, on being born with less weight, have greater risk of suffering some cardiovascular disease. Their research will try to find out if this greater risk, in some way, can be compensated by maternal lactation.
Moreover, the team will continue monitoring the Swedish and Estonian children who have participated in this research into breastfeeding, in order to find out any possible variations in their cardiovascular risk as they grow up.
About the author
Idoia Labayen Goñi (Pamplona, 1968) has a PhD in nutrition from the University of Navarra and, since 2002, has been senior lecturer in Nutrition in the Nutrition and Bromatology Area in the Pharmacy Faculty at the UPV/EHU. In recent years Ms Labayen has taken part in a number of projects and research organised by the European Union and the Governments of Spain, Sweden and the Basque Country. Moreover, she is the author or co-author of eight books or chapters in books, and of more than 50 articles in international magazines, most of which have to do with child nutrition.
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