Babies benefit when breastfed for longer, new research shows

New research looking at the influence of breastfeeding on healthy growth patterns in childhood has shown the benefits of breastfeeding babies for as long as possible.

Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng, an NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow with the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University, looked at breastfeeding duration and the age at which solid foods are introduced on children’s rate of growth taking into account their age and sex.

Dr Zheng said her research found that breastfeeding for at least 6 months had more favourable growth patterns from birth to age 5 years and this may protect against later obesity.

The study used longitudinal data from IPAN’s Infant Feeding, Activity, and Nutrition Trial (INFANT), with more than 500 children from birth to 5 years of age. Dr Zheng said the findings support current policies and public health initiatives that seek to promote and support breastfeeding.

“Infant feeding guidelines in Australia and internationally encourage mothers to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and to continue breastfeeding with complementary foods to 12 months or beyond,” Dr Zheng said. 

Breastfeeding is widely recommended and seen as natural, but it does not mean that it is easy, Dr Zheng said.

“Breastfeeding is a learned skill for both mother and baby. Mothers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may face additional barriers in breastfeeding their baby,” she said.

IPAN PhD Candidate Konsita Kuswara has been studying how Chinese Australian mothers feed their baby and how they can be supported.  She surveyed close to 300 Chinese Australian mothers to understand their breastfeeding practices.

“What we found was that although all of the mothers in the study have initiated breastfeeding, many struggled to maintain exclusive breastfeeding beyond the first four weeks of life where more than half had introduced formula,” Ms Kuswara explained.

The study also found that despite the high prevalence of early introduction of formula, 50% of the mothers continued to breastfeed for at least 12 months, suggesting that Chinese Australian mothers were mixing breast and formula feeding.

“To encourage Chinese Australian mothers to breastfeed exclusively, the findings suggest that we need to support mothers during pregnancy and aim to increase their breastfeeding motivation, confidence, and awareness of infant feeding guidelines, particularly among working mothers and those from lower-income households,” Ms Kuswara said.

Protecting and promoting exclusive breastfeeding is endorsed by the World Health Organization as a ‘double-duty action’ that reduces the risk of under nutrition and obesity simultaneously.

“Given the multicultural nature of Australian population, breastfeeding support programmes that can be tailored to ethnic minority groups is essential to improve overall breastfeeding rates in Australia,” Ms Kuswara said.

Dr Zheng’s paper on this study was chosen as the Journal Editor’s Choice in the Obesity February issue and was featured in the UNICEF UK Baby Friendly Initiative newsletter.  The paper can be accessed here. Further details on the Chinese Australian mothers infant feeding study can be found here.

Experts on early nutrition from Deakin IPAN have developed a free online course for parents, students and healthcare professionals exploring evidence-based principles of good nutrition in the first 12 months of a baby’s life and practical strategies on how to apply them. This popular course is currently running until 20th September and can still be accessed through FutureLearn. The course runs multiple times per year with the next one commencing on 26th October.


Dr Miaobing (Jazzmin) Zheng is a NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University. She is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and a Nutrition Epidemiologist with research focus on the early dietary and behavioural determinants of growth pattern and adiposity in children. 

Konsita Kuswara is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and PhD candidate at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, Deakin University.  Her PhD focuses on understanding the breastfeeding practices and determinants of Chinese Australian mothers.  Her primary supervisor is Dr Rachel Laws.

Dr Rachel Laws is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University. Her research focuses on the development of scalable approaches to promoting nutrition in the first 2000 days of life, with a particular emphasis on implementation research in real world settings in collaboration with practice and policy partners.

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