Breastfed Babies May Have a Lower Risk of Type 1 Diabetes

person breastfeeding baby

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent review of existing research found that some studies support an association between longer periods of breastfeeding and a lower risk of type 1 diabetes.
  • However, researchers don't yet have an explanation for the association.
  • Breastfeeding is recommended by health organizations, but it doesn't come easy for everyone and how you feed your baby is entirely up to you.

Around the world, rising numbers of children are developing the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes. In the United States, there was a 1.9% increase in new cases of type 1 diabetes per year between 2002 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Sweden has the second-highest incidence of type 1 diabetes in children, with 40 children per 100,000 diagnosed each year. This prompted researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Solna to carry out a systematic review and meta-analysis of existing research on the role of diet in the development of the disease. 

The researchers found that some high-quality studies indicate that longer breastfeeding and later introduction to gluten, fruit, and cow's milk may reduce the risk of type 1 diabetes. They hope that their findings, published in the journal EBioMedicine, will lead to further research into possible preventive measures. 

"So far, we know that genetic predisposition is linked to the condition, but our knowledge is limited when it comes to environmental triggers and thus, no preventive strategies have been established,” says the study’s first author Anna-Maria Lampousi, a doctoral student at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at Karolinska Institutet.  

What Is Type 1 Diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, is a chronic disease characterized by abnormally high levels of glucose (sugar derived from carbohydrates that serve as the body's main source of energy) in the blood. It usually develops during childhood or adolescence, but it can appear in adulthood. The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown, but scientists believe genetics and environmental factors play a part.

A Closer Look at the Study 

The researchers screened 5,935 articles published in medical journals up to October 2020. They identified 96 relevant studies, which provided results on diet and the risk of type 1 diabetes in children. 

Altogether, 26 dietary factors were evaluated, including breastfeeding, age of introduction to different foods, and childhood diet. The strongest research found an association between longer periods of breastfeeding and later introduction to gluten and a lower risk of type 1 diabetes.  

Babies who were breastfed for at least six to 12 months had a 61% lower risk of developing type 1 diabetes than other babies. And babies who were introduced to gluten at three to six months of age were 64% less likely to develop type 1 diabetes than those who were introduced to gluten earlier.

Anna-Maria Lampousi

Our findings support that longer breastfeeding and later introduction to gluten, cow’s milk, and fruit may decrease the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

— Anna-Maria Lampousi

While the researchers didn’t investigate the mechanisms that may explain the associations, previous research has shown prolonged periods of breastfeeding to have generally positive effects on an infant’s immune system and gut health. Additionally, some experimental studies found that gluten may hinder the production of insulin, which helps control blood glucose levels.

“Our findings support that longer breastfeeding and later introduction to gluten, cow’s milk, and fruit may decrease the risk of developing type 1 diabetes,” says Lampousi. She adds that there are many dietary factors of potential interest, but the evidence is weak and more high quality studies are required. 

“On the positive side, the likelihood that an individual will develop type 1 diabetes is low, even if breastfeeding is not initiated or if gluten is introduced early,” Lampousi says. 

Breastfeeding Is Learned Behavior

Former labor and delivery nurse and certified lactation consultant Lindsey Shipley, RN, IBCLC, isn't surprised by association between breastfeeding and a lower risk of type 1 diabetes. "We know through previous research that breastfed babies have a lower incidence of lots of other illnesses like asthma, obesity, infectious disease, and diarrhea, among others. Breastfeeding also helps form the gut and prepare it for the processing of future foods." 

Breastfeeding may be the most natural way to feed a baby, but it doesn't come naturally to everyone. "It's a learned behavior for both mom and baby," Shipley says. "I've seen so many parents feel overwhelmed and unsure when it comes to breastfeeding, even though they wanted to do it."

Shipley suggests educating yourself as much as you can during pregnancy on how breastfeeding works, and then seeking help from a certified lactation consultant if there are any issues, like difficulty latching or unresolved pain. But she advises steering clear of things like lactation cookies and quick fixes. "Lean into education and support that can help you on your unique journey," she says.

What This Means For You

International health organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend breastfeeding. But how you feed your child is a personal decision, and breastfeeding doesn't work out for everyone, for a range of reasons.

If you believe breastfeeding is best for you and your baby, it's important to have a support system on board. You can also get trusted information and support from a certified lactation consultant or La Leche League leader. Online parenting communities can also help you feel less alone if any issues arise during your breastfeeding journey.  

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Patterson CC, Karuranga S, Salpea P, et al. IDF diabetes atlas: Worldwide estimates of incidence, prevalence and mortality of type 1 diabetes in children and adolescents: Results from the international diabetes federation diabetes atlas, 9th edition. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. doi:10.1016/j.diabres.2019.107842

  2. Ludvigsson J. Increasing incidence but decreasing awareness of type 1 diabetes in Sweden. Diabetes Care. 2017;40(10). doi:10.2337/dc17-1175

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates of New Diagnosed Cases of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Continue to Rise Among Children, Teens.

  4. Lampousi A-M, Carlsson S, Löfvenborg JE. Dietary factors and risk of islet autoimmunity and type 1 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. EBioMedicine. 2021;72. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2021.103633

  5. Giwa AM, Ahmed R, Omidian Z, et al. Current understandings of the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes: Genetics to environment. World Journal of Diabetes. 2020;11(1). doi:10.4239/wjd.v11.i1.13

  6. Vieira Borba V, Sharif K, Shoenfeld Y. Breastfeeding and autoimmunity: Programing health from the beginning. American Journal of Reproductive Immunology. 2017;79(1). doi:10.1111/aji.12778

  7. Haupt-Jorgensen M, Holm L, Josefsen K, Buschard K. Possible prevention of diabetes with a gluten-free diet. Nutrients. 2018;10(11). doi:10.3390/nu10111746

  8. National Institutes of Health. What are the recommendations for breastfeeding?.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.