Breastfeeding, Diarrhea, and Pneumonia

In the modern United Kingdom, about 12 percent of all normal, healthy, full-term babies are hospitalized at least once in their first 8 months of life. Many of these hospitalizations are for pneumonia, bronchiolitis, or other chest infections; many are for diarrhea or other gastroenteritis. How big a difference might breastfeeding make in preventing these kids from being hospitalized?

Breastfeeding, Diarrhea, and Pneumonia

The results of a huge study of almost 16,000 babies were published in the April 2007 Pediatrics. Researchers from Oxford and University College London looked at the outcomes of babies who were exclusively breastfed for 8 month, those who were exclusively formula-fed for the same period, and those who received a combination. After accounting for other factors,* the investigators calculated that exclusive breastfeeding could prevent more than 50 percent of all diarrhea and gastroenteritis hospitalizations each month! Even breastfeeding just partially could prevent more than 30 percent of them. Similarly, exclusive breastfeeding could prevent 27 percent of pneumonia and chest infection hospitalizations each month; partial breastfeeding could prevent 25 percent of them. The effect disappeared soon after the child was weaned.

What a gift when babies can breastfeed at least some throughout their entire first year! Even if they can’t, I’m very happy for every month they get.

*The profound effect of breastfeeding held up after researchers accounted for many other variables including birth weight, gestation, mode of delivery, infant’s age in months, infant’s gender, maternal age, whether the infant was firstborn, maternal smoking, maternal socioeconomic class, maternal occupation, maternal education, maternal marital status, and whether the infant lives in a rented accommodation.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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