Breastfeeding in Infancy Is Linked to Decreased Risk for Childhood and Adult Obesity

A highlight of a study released online last week in advance of publication in the June print issue of Pediatrics links breastfeeding in infancy with a decreased risk for both childhood and adult obesity. Through breastfeeding, infants learn to self-regulate their food consumption. Conversely, babies fed by bottle, learn to empty the full bottle (Gordon, 2010). How does breastfeeding teach self regulation?

  • Breastfeeding is controlled by the baby, whereas bottle-feeding is controlled by the parent
  • Parents may over encourage their children to empty a bottle, while breastfeeding prevents parents from visualizing the amount of milk consumed
  • Breast milk varies between and during feedings. It may taste different or have a higher fat content sending signals to the baby that the feeding is over
  • Babies receive a hormone called lectin from breast milk that affects appetite control (Baydala, 2010)

Self-regulation is related to several areas of early childhood brain development – especially those that are involved with attention and resolving conflict. These same parts of the brain also been linked to the development of empathy, guilt and a conscience. When the capacity for self-regulation is impeded, a child is at greater risk for many problems-from persistent tantrums to impulsive behaviors to difficulty regulating sleep and diet.

In Memphis

Breastfeeding rates in Tennessee lag behind national averages, and Shelby county mothers are consistently less likely to breastfeed their infants than other Tennessee mothers (The Urban Child Institute, [TUCI], 2010). Shelby County mothers are less likely to persist with breastfeeding after initiation, with only 30% of infants receiving breast milk within their diet at 6 months and 11% at 12 months (TUCI, 2010). The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that mothers breastfeed their children exclusively from birth to 6 months and continue breastfeeding through the first year. Mothers are strongly encouraged to continue breastfeeding as long as it is mutually desirable for the mother and child (Devlin, Breland, & Imig, 2010).

At the same time, Tennessee has the third-highest pediatric obesity rates in the nation, and overweight children are highly likely to become obese adults (Carey, 2010). Obesity costs Tennessee $1.8 billion annually in medical costs (Hare, Bailey, Forde, Mackey, & Tang, 2006).

What's the good news? Initiatives to encourage breastfeeding also discourage obesity. Encouraging Memphis mothers to breastfeed is a smart way to promote optimal early childhood brain development and tackle the high costs of obesity.

This month, The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has released its report on ending childhood obesity in a generation. There is a significant section on breastfeeding as an obesity preventive measure ("Solving the problem," 2010).

  • Recommendation 1.3: Hospitals and health care providers should use maternity care practices that empower new mothers to breastfeed, such as the Baby-Friendly hospital standards.
  • Recommendation 1.4: Health care providers and insurance companies should provide information to pregnant women and new mothers on breastfeeding, including the availability of educational classes, and connect pregnant women and new mothers to breastfeeding support programs to help them make an informed infant feeding decision.
  • Recommendation 1.5: Local health departments and community-based organizations, working with health care providers, insurance companies, and others should develop peer support programs that empower pregnant women and mothers to get the help and support they need from other mothers who have breastfed.
  • Recommendation 1.6: Early childhood settings should support breastfeeding.

Baydala, K. (2010). Breast milk can curb obesity. The Clarion-Ledger, Retrieved from

Carey, C. (2010). Childhood obesity in tennessee drops slightly. The Tennessean, Retrieved from

Carney, G. (2009). Guest column: mother's milk is 'dream' potion to start life. The Commercial Appeal, Retrieved from

Devlin, K., Breland, F., & Imig, D. (2010). Strategies for improving breastfeeding rates in shelby. The Urban Child Institute, Retrieved from

Gordon, S. (2010). Breast-fed babies know when to say when. HealthDay, Retrieved from

Hare, M.E., Bailey, J.E., Forde, D.R., Mackey, S.T., & Tang, J. (2006). Memphis behavioral risk factor survey, 2005. Healthy Memphis Data Center, Retrieved from

Solving the problem. (2010). White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, Retrieved from

The Urban Child Institute. (2010). The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County: Data Book. Memphis, TN: The Urban Child Institute