MONDAY, Nov. 1, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Mothers who breast-feed are less likely to restrict their child's food intake as the youngster grows up, new research finds.
One possible explanation: Breast-feeding mothers may be better attuned to their child's nutritional needs. This may make them less likely to overfeed the baby, preventing the onset of weight gain and the subsequent decision to limit calories, the researchers said.
The study in the November issue of Pediatrics found the odds of a breast-feeding mother restricting food at 1 year of age were 73 percent less than they were for bottle-feeding mothers.
The study also found the longer a woman breast-fed, the higher the odds that she wouldn't restrict food.
"It may be that there's more communication between a breast-feeding mom and her baby than there might be between a bottle-feeding parent and their baby," said study co-author Dr. Matthew Gillman, an associate professor of ambulatory care and prevention at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Boston.
"When a breast-feeding baby gets full, the baby comes off the breast. The baby regulates intake. In bottle-feeding, mom or dad may see that there's 4 ounces of formula left and urge the baby to finish, overriding the baby's appetite," he explained.
Several studies have linked breast-feeding with a lower rate of childhood obesity, according to the latest research. Given the dramatically rising rates of childhood obesity, Gillman said he and his colleagues wanted to figure out what made breast-feeding protective against obesity.
To answer that question, the researchers studied nearly 1,200 mother-baby pairs who were already involved in a long-term study called Project Viva. They gathered information on whether the infants were bottle- or breast-fed, and if breast-fed, how long they were breast-fed.
The researchers also asked questions to see if the mothers were restricting food or pressuring their children to eat when they were 1 year old. Restriction was measured through one question: "I have to be careful not to feed my child too much," and the mothers were asked whether they agreed or disagreed. There were also five questions designed to see if the mothers were pressuring their child to eat.
The average age of the mothers was 32, and 76 percent were white. At six months postpartum, 41 percent of the women had weaned their babies, while 24 percent were still exclusively breast-feeding. Twenty-five percent of the women were feeding both formula and breast milk. Ten percent fed their babies formula exclusively.
Thirteen percent of all the mothers agreed or strongly agreed with the restriction question. The pressure-to-eat questions were rated on a scale of 0 to 20, and the average score was 5.3.
For each month of exclusive breast-feeding, the odds were 11 percent less that a mother would restrict her child's eating at 1 year of age. Mothers who breast-fed exclusively for six months were the least restrictive of all. Odds were 73 percent less that a breast-feeding mother would restrict her child's food than a bottle-feeding mother.
Dr. Adam Aponte, chairman of pediatrics and ambulatory care at North General Hospital in New York City, said breast-feeding mothers may be more knowledgeable about health-care issues.
"Women who breast-feed are usually more motivated and often are better consumers of health care in general," Aponte said.
But, Gillman said that when it comes to their attitudes toward children's eating patterns and childhood obesity, breast-feeding and bottle-feeding mothers are quite similar.
"This is an interesting study," said Aponte, "and it opens up a lot of questions."
Gillman said one implication of this study is that health-care practitioners may be able to teach bottle-feeding parents to recognize the signs that their baby is full and allow more infant self-regulation.
Both Gillman and Aponte acknowledged that parental attitudes are only one factor in childhood obesity. Aponte said other big factors are feeding juice to babies, adding solids like cereal to babies' bottles, and cultural attitudes that a heavy baby is a healthy baby.
To learn more about the benefits of breast-feeding, visit the National Women's Health Information Center.