Breastfeeding May Lower Obesity Risk in Children of Diabetic Mothers

Long-term impact of neonatal breastfeeding on childhood adiposity and fat distribution among children exposed to diabetes in utero, by Tessa L. Crume and colleagues. Diabetes Care 34:641–645, 2011

What is the problem and what is known about it so far?

Babies born to mothers who have diabetes during pregnancy are more likely to become obese in childhood. Researchers think these children may be “programmed” before birth to become obese because they are exposed to high glucose from their mothers during a crucial stage of development. The first few weeks of life may be another important time that determines a child’s future chances of becoming obese because of the fat development that occurs then. During these weeks, babies who are breast-fed often lose weight, and those who are fed formula tend to gain weight. For this reason, breastfeeding is now promoted as a key way to help prevent childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. So far, there has been little study about whether breastfeeding can reduce the higher risk for obesity in babies who were exposed to their mothers’ diabetes before birth. If breastfeeding could reduce the risk for obesity in babies exposed to their mothers’ diabetes, mothers with diabetes who breast-fed their babies may be able to reduce the babies’ chances of becoming obese despite their higher risk at birth.

Why did the researchers do this particular study?

The researchers wanted to find out more about whether breastfeeding protects against childhood obesity. They also wanted to see if breastfeeding could lower the risk for obesity in the babies of mothers with diabetes.

Who was studied?

The study included 89 Colorado children of various ethnic backgrounds who were exposed to diabetes before birth and 379 children who were not exposed to diabetes before birth.

How was the study done?

The researchers looked at the children’s body mass index (BMI) (a measure of overweight), waist size, and other measurements of body fat during childhood. They also looked at which babies were breast-fed for less than 6 months and which were breast-fed for 6 months or longer. Then they looked for links between breastfeeding and weight and fat levels in children who were or were not exposed to diabetes before birth.

What did the researchers find?

Children who were breast-fed for at least 6 months had lower BMI, smaller waist sizes, and less body fat when they were 6 to 13 years old. Among the children who were breast-fed for less than 6 months, those who were exposed to diabetes before birth had higher BMI, bigger waists, and more body fat. Among the children who were breast-fed for 6 months or longer, there were no differences between those who were and those who were not exposed to diabetes before birth. This suggests that breastfeeding reduced the higher risk for obesity in babies exposed to diabetes in utero.

What were the limitations of the study?

This study may have been too small to fully detect breastfeeding-related differences in BMI between children who were and children who were not exposed to diabetes before birth. Having more participants might have resulted in a bigger difference between the two groups. However, the findings were strong using various other measurements of overweight and body fat. Finally, the researchers did not follow participants after the age of 13 years, so this study does not address whether they may still be at higher risk for obesity later in life.

What are the implications of the study?

Although more study is needed, breastfeeding infants who are exposed to diabetes before birth may be helped to reduce their higher risk of becoming obese later in life. Women who have diabetes during pregnancy should consider breastfeeding their infants for at least 6 months.

  • Last Reviewed: September 13, 2013
  • Last Edited: October 7, 2013