In February 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off a campaign to promote breastfeeding, telling Politics Daily, “What we’re learning now is that early intervention is key. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” Many Republicans, conservatives and others didn’t like Michelle Obama’s move, declaring that breastfeeding is best left off the government table. Now researchers in Ireland have shown that Obama was on to something with a study that shows that breastfeeding for 13 to 25 weeks is associated with a 38% risk reduction for obesity for nine year-old kids, while breastfeeding longer than 26 weeks is linked to a full 51% reduction in risk of obesity. Numerous studies (pdf) over the last couple of decades have also shown that breastfeeding does reduce the risk for obesity significantly. This new study, published recently in the journal Social Science and Medicineis a bit different than studies of the past though, because it looked at a very large study group – 8,568 Irish children, or one-seventh of all the kids born in that nation between 1997 and 1998.

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The researchers in the Ireland study designed their study specifically to address any criticism past research on this topic has received. For example, this research took parent weight into account along with other conditions associated with childhood obesity, including low socioeconomic status and a lack of physical activity. Even taking all of the above into account, the new research still showed a strong link between breastfeeding and a lowered risk for obesity. The researchers estimate that breastfeeding may reduce obesity rates due to the healthy composition of human breast milk and because breastfeeding mothers, “May be more responsive to children’s cues indicating satiety.” However, researchers found that the obesity lowering benefits of breastfeeding don’t kick in unless mother’s breastfeed for at least 13 weeks, and the benefits increased significantly for children who breastfed for 26 weeks or more. This catch could be a problem, because as it has been well-documented, women in the USA don’t breastfeed nearly long enough. In fact many women have problems meeting even a 3 month exclusive breastfeeding goal, while a recent CDC USA breastfeeding report card shows that only 43% of U.S. babies are still breastfed at six months of age and just 22.4% of U.S. babies are still being breastfed at 12 months of age. Worse, not one state in the USA has reached a 50% breastfeeding rate at 12 months. If we want to work on the obesity problem in the USA, maybe we should start by supporting, not hindering mamas when it comes to breastfeeding.

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All images by Flickr User Mothering Touch