14 Jan 2011

Breastfeeding exclusively for six months may not be best

Breastfeeding exclusively for six months may not be best for babies, according to a new study. Mums of young children tell Channel 4 News the conflicting advice is confusing.

There's conflicting advice on how long mums should breastfeed for (Getty)

Experts, led by a paediatrician from University College London’s Institute of Child Health, say babies may benefit from being given solid food earlier.

The authors, writing in the British Medical Journal, said exclusively breastfeeding for six months is a good recommendation for developing countries, which have higher death rates from infection.

But in the UK, it could lead to some adverse health outcomes and may “reduce the window for introducing new tastes”.

In 2001, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a global recommendation that infants should be exclusively breastfed for six months.

The UK adopted the guidelines in 2003 and they remain in place.

“I believe that this is a retrograde step.” Janet Fyle, Royal College of Midwives

Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, challenged the findings of today’s study: “I believe that this is a retrograde step and plays into the hands of the baby food industry which has failed to support the six-month exclusive breastfeeding policy in the UK.

“The argument often advanced that the six months policy is best suited to developing countries is not strictly true.

“There is evidence that some babies do die in developed countries from inappropriate young child feeding, such as the introduction of solid foods earlier before their swallowing mechanism is mature enough or they have fully developed the capability to cope with solid foods.”

Confusion for parents

The advice has left some mothers wondering what is best for their babies.

Audrey Kellacher, from Inverness, has a nine-week-old daughter: “This is my first child and I have followed advice from the experts.

“I read the relevant information and that was to breastfeed exclusively until six months. I rely on the advice of my health visitor who also said to breastfeed exclusively until 6 months.

“It is very confusing. I’ve always thought I would breastfeed exclusively until then but today’s study could change my perceptions.”

“Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs up to six months.” Department of Health

Mhairi Langlands, who is expecting her second child this month, breastfed her daughter exclusively until she was five months.

She told Channel 4 News: “When you have a baby there are conflicting views on everything you do and recommendations are changing all of the time.

“If you listened to everything you wouldn’t know what to do so I think you just have to go with your instincts to a certain extent.”

Our Midlands Correspondent Darshna Soni writes about her experiences of breastfeeding advice:

The mothers (and fathers) at my local Sure Start centre weren't too impressed with the latest advice on breastfeeding. "Here we go again," said one.

When I joined last year, we were consistently told we should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months.

It wasn't always easy to stick to this, especially when I was back at work (I'd get some funny looks when I'd go off to express milk in the middle of reporting a story!)

But many of us persevered because we were told "breast is best".

Women who chose not to breast-feed told me they were made to feel guilty. "I remember being made to feel like a failure," said a mother who chose the bottle.

And yet a new study now suggests that relying purely on breastfeeding for the first six months might not be best. Even our health visitor admits that it's confusing. "The advice seems to change every few years. It was completely different when I was training."

So, what are parents supposed to do? "It's confusing enough, you get told so many different things," said one of the Dads in our group. "We're just going to ignore it all and do what we think is best for our baby." Everyone agreed that that was the best advice of all!

Current guidelines

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: “Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs up to six months of age and we recommend exclusive breastfeeding for this time.

“Mothers who wish to introduce solids before six months should always talk to health professionals first.

“The Department of Health will review this research alongside all emerging evidence on infant feeding.

“We have asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to undertake a review of infant feeding, which is expected to report later this year.”