How Breastfeeding Helps Prevent Obesity

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Babies who breastfeed are less likely to become overweight or obese later in life. Researchers are working to understand why breastfeeding may help to prevent obesity in infants and children. Breastfeeding is also believed to contribute to healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight throughout childhood and into adulthood. 

This is good news for parents who choose to breastfeed. While breastfeeding reduces the likelihood of obesity in children, parents can also take other steps to help their child maintain a healthy weight throughout life.

How Breastfeeding Helps Prevent Obesity

Multiple studies have found a correlation between breastfeeding and a reduction in obesity. In particular, researchers have found that associations are dose-dependent, effects are diminished when breastmilk is consumed from a bottle, and effects are weakened when a baby receives supplemental formula.

Possible reasons for this relationship between breastfeeding and healthy weight management include:

  • Gut bacteria: Breastfeeding supports the growth of healthy bacteria in a child’s digestive system, which plays a role in their metabolism and immune system.
  • Self-regulation: Breastfed babies regulate the amount of breastmilk their parent produces (supply and demand) and the amount they consume at a feeding. Breastfed babies may learn early on about hunger and fullness cues.
  • Later introduction to solids: Both shorter breastfeeding duration and introduction of solid foods before 5 months are associated with higher body mass indexes (BMIs) at 12 months.

Prevent Obesity in Your Breastfed Baby

Breastfeeding is one tool that can help prevent obesity in children. But there are other steps you can take to help your baby grow at a healthy rate

Breastfeed Exclusively 

Researchers have found that children at higher genetic risk for obesity benefit from exclusive breastfeeding in infancy. Exclusively breastfeeding a child until 5 months of age has been shown to decrease a child’s BMI. Those effects are significantly diminished if exclusive breastfeeding only lasts for three months or if a baby is fed both breastmilk and formula.

Exclusive breastfeeding is not possible for every family. But, breastfeeding for any length of time is something to strive for, especially if you have a family history of obesity or your baby has other risk factors. 

Avoid Overfeeding 

If you are breastfeeding your baby, you probably don’t need to worry about overfeeding. Babies fed on cue tend to communicate their hunger needs and stop eating when they are full. 

You can meet your baby’s demands by letting them breastfeed as long as they want on the first breast and then offering the second. Don’t worry about the time. Some babies will be efficient and be done in 15–20 minutes; others will linger for an hour or more. Nursing frequency and time at the breast do not indicate overfeeding as long as you follow your baby’s cues.

If you are bottle-feeding, it can be tempting to encourage your baby to finish the amount of milk in the bottle. But, be sure to pay attention to the cues your baby offers that tell you they are finished and let them stop when they indicate they are done. Full babies may stop sucking, turn away from the bottle, and relax their hands.

Manage an Overabundant Supply 

If you have an overabundant milk supply, your baby may be struggling to breastfeed because of a forceful letdown. In addition, oversupply often results in an imbalance in hindmilk and foremilk. 

In the early weeks, many people have an overabundant supply until their bodies adjust to the demands of their baby. If you think you may be producing too much milk, try offering the same breast for multiple feedings and lying back while breastfeeding. 

Oversupply may result in earlier than desired weaning, especially without proper support. If you notice symptoms like overly full breasts that don’t soften after a feeding and a baby that is fussy during a feeding, seek help from your doctor or lactation consultant.

Try a Pacifier 

Non-nutritive sucking can happen with the breast, fingers, and pacifiers. Sucking patterns are different for nutritive sucking and non-nutritive sucking, which is why babies who use the breast to suck for comfort are not at risk of overfeeding.

Not every parent is up for being used as a "human pacifier." So, if your baby has a greater need for non-nutritive sucking, and you need a break, you may want to try a pacifier.

Encourage Physical Activity 

Spend time playing with your baby and providing your child with activities that allow movement. Try to reserve swaddling for sleep time and offer your baby a safe space, like a play mat, to lay and observe their surroundings. As your baby gets older, you can encourage even more activity.

Introduce Solid Food Carefully 

Once you begin adding solid foods to your baby's diet, limit or avoid empty calorie foods and sugar-sweetened drinks. Small pieces of soft fruit or cut-up cooked vegetables make excellent introductory snacks. By introducing your child to healthy foods right from the start, you can create a foundation for healthy eating habits as they grow.

Visit the Pediatrician Regularly 

See your baby's healthcare provider regularly for well visits. Your child's doctor will chart and follow your child's height, weight, and BMI. Research has found that a high BMI in early infancy is a stronger indication of early childhood obesity than weight-for-length.

If you have any concerns about your baby's growth, weight, or BMI, consult your child's doctor for information and assistance. You should never withhold feedings or underfeed your child to try to prevent obesity.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I know if I am overfeeding my baby?

If you are exclusively breastfeeding, you likely do not need to be worried about overfeeding your baby. Pay attention to cues that your baby is done eating—pulling off the nipple and turning away are common indications that they are done.

If you are feeding your baby breast milk from a bottle, let them finish when they want to. Don’t force them to finish what is in a bottle if they signal they are done. 

What are the health risks of overfeeding a baby?

Overfeeding can result in discomfort for your baby. Babies who are overfed may experience excessive gas, colic, and spitting up. In addition, overeating may be learned very early in infancy, which can set a child up for unhealthy eating habits and early programming for obesity.

A Word From Verywell

Breastfeeding has many benefits, including helping to prevent obesity. In addition to breastfeeding, there are other things you can do to help your baby learn hunger and fullness cues. 

Healthy eating habits can be learned in infancy. Even if you don’t breastfeed, avoiding overfeeding, encouraging physical activity, and introducing solids carefully can all set your child up to grow at a healthy rate.

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