Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect
Summary The importance of breastfeeding in low-income and middle-income countries is well recognised, but less consensus exists about its importance in high-income countries. In low-income and middle-income countries, only 37% of children younger than 6 months of age are exclusively breastfed. With few exceptions, breastfeeding duration is shorter in high-income countries than in those that are resource-poor. Our meta-analyses indicate protection against child infections and malocclusion, increases in intelligence, and probable reductions in overweight and diabetes. We did not find associations with allergic disorders such as asthma or with blood pressure or cholesterol, and we noted an increase in tooth decay with longer periods of breastfeeding. For nursing women, breastfeeding gave protection against breast cancer and it improved birth spacing, and it might also protect against ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes. The scaling up of breastfeeding to a near universal level could prevent 823 000 annual deaths in children younger than 5 years and 20 000 annual deaths from breast cancer. Recent epidemiological and biological findings from during the past decade expand on the known benefits of breastfeeding for women and children, whether they are rich or poor.