Babies fed cow’s milk too early are more likely to become overweight

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Cow's milk - 1024x500New research from Children of the 90s shows that the weight gain of infants given cow’s milk as a main drink in place of breast or formula milk before 12 months of age may be greater than that of breastfed infants.

Children who were fed 600ml (just over a pint) or more of cow’s milk each day at 8 months of age put on weight faster on average and were heavier than breast-fed children right up to  10 years of age. The research also found that children who were fed 600ml or more of formula milk each day put on weight faster in infancy and were heavier than breast-fed children up to two and a half years of age. The amount, as well as the type, of milk fed to the infants were both important factors in how children grew.

Over 1,000 children enrolled in Children of the 90s were studied. Their weight, height and body mass index (BMI) were measured 14 times from when they were born until they were 10 years of age.

The researchers compared the growth of children given cow’s milk as their main drink at eight months with those fed breast milk and those fed formula milk. All of the babies were already well established on solid foods (i.e. had been weaned). The researchers also looked at the amount of milk consumed comparing 600ml or more with less than 600ml each day. The maximum amount of milk recommended at this age is 600ml a day.

The researchers found that 13% of parents/carers were feeding their child cow’s milk instead of breast milk or formula milk when their child was eight months of age although the official guidance is not to replace breast milk or formula with cow’s milk until a child is at least 12 months old.

Of the 1,112 children surveyed, 141 (12.7%) were breastfed, 824 (74.1%) were formula fed and 147 (13.2%) were given cow’s milk as their only milk drink at the age of eight months.

Dr Pauline Emmett from the University of Bristol, who jointly led the research, said:

What this shows us is that giving lots of cow’s milk to children in late infancy can lead to those children gaining weight faster and having a higher BMI right throughout childhood when compared to breastfed babies. This could contribute to the development of childhood obesity and the health risks connected with that which can persist right through to adulthood. Parents need to be advised about reducing the volume of milk fed by bottle once infants are established on solids foods.

Our finding reinforces the current Department of Health guidance which says that babies should not be given cow’s milk as their main drink before the age of 12 months.

David Hopkins, specialist paediatric dietitian at Southampton Children’s Hospital and joint research lead, said:

This research clearly shows the benefits of breast feeding and where necessary, appropriate formula feeding during late infancy as opposed to using unsuitable alternatives such as cow’s milk. It should help to provide further guidance to mothers and health professionals alike regarding the type and volume of milk necessary in late infancy and early childhood to optimise a child’s nutritional status.

Read the full paper

Effects on childhood body habitus of feeding large volumes of cow or formula milk compared with breastfeeding in the latter part of infancy‘ by David Hopkins, Colin D Steer, Kate Northstone, and Pauline M Emmett was published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on 9 September 2015.

 


This news item has been reposted from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children website.