Jessica Woo, PhD, MHSA.

Jessica Woo, PhD, MHSA

Lisa Martin, PhD.

Lisa Martin, PhD

Human milk is the optimal first food for babies, but its power to prevent obesity later in life is not so clear.

A study led by scientists at Cincinnati Children’s, published in April in Current Obesity Reports, reviewed more than 80 breastfeeding studies spanning more than 20 years. The review indicates that obesity prevalence was 10 to 20 percent lower among breastfed infants than those raised with formula. However, the components of breast milk can vary from woman to woman, which suggests that other factors beyond breastfeeding also play important roles in whether a child grows up obese.

“By understanding the mechanisms of how breastfeeding and the composition of human milk affect infant development, we may be able to generate a more nuanced view of the connection between breastfeeding and obesity risk,” says Jessica Woo, PhD, MHSA, Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, a co-author of the study.

Woo and her colleague at Cincinnati Children’s, Lisa Martin, PhD, Division of Human Genetics, suggest three potential biological factors related to breastfeeding that may influence obesity later in life: the role of maternal obesity, the effect of breastfeeding on how the digestive system processes food, and how breastfeeding may influence the risk of childhood obesity through alterations in taste preferences and diet.

“The complex nature of the relationship between breastfeeding and obesity, including the fact that human milk and milk production vary among women, suggests that the medical literature does not promote breastfeeding as a frontline strategy to prevent obesity,” Martin says.