Mothers are being warned that breastfeeding exclusively for six months may not be best for their babies and could put them at risk of allergies, food aversion and even obesity.
New research, which contradicts nearly a decade of official advice, says babies can be safely given solid foods at least eight weeks earlier in life.
British researchers have questioned guidelines issued in 2001 by the World Health Organisation – and supported by the Department of Health in 2003 – which told women to breastfeed for the first six months before giving solid foods to babies. Based on WHO ‘global recommendations’, the aim was to help children worldwide avoid allergies and gastroenteritis.
But experts led by a paediatrician from University College London’s Institute of Child Health now claim the policy may actually have increased the risk of babies suffering allergies and iron deficiency. In addition, it could deter children from eating foods with bitter tastes that are good for them, fuelling the rise in obesity.
The new study in the British Medical Journal has sparked controversy, with the Royal College of Midwives claiming it can only benefit the baby food industry. But other breastfeeding specialists welcomed the ‘common sense’ findings that many mothers instinctively follow despite feeling guilty about ignoring official advice.
The Department of Health last night stuck by the old guidelines, but admitted it has asked a panel of scientists to consider all the evidence and report back this year.
The new study says that when the WHO edict came out in 2001, many Western countries, including two out of three European nations, and the U.S. chose to ignore it. But in 2003, Britain agreed to comply with the recommendation, which sprang from a review of 16 studies. They included seven from developing countries and the remainder from developed countries which were of ‘variable quality’. The conclusion was that babies given breast milk alone for six months had fewer infections.
But another review of 33 studies carried out at the same time found ‘no compelling evidence’ against introducing solids at four to six months, known as weaning. There is growing evidence that breastfeeding alone for six months does not give babies all the nutrition they need, with some becoming iron deficient. Babies fed on formula milk get extra iron, but they too are exposed to other drawbacks of late introduction of solid foods.
The new study says Swedish research links problems with tolerating gluten to a delay in eating it until six months – with the ideal wait being four to six months.
Professor Mary Fewtrell, who led the research team, said: ‘Perhaps the Department of Health might conclude similarly were it to commission an objective, independent review of the evidence.’
Clare Byam-Cook, an independent breastfeeding counsellor and former midwife, said: ‘The findings are long overdue because there is no evidence to show harm from introducing solids at three months or if the baby is over 12 pounds in weight.’
But Janet Fyle, policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said changing official advice would be a retrograde step that ‘plays into the hands of the baby food industry’. She said there was ‘irrefutable evidence’ that breast milk confers many health benefits on babies that last a lifetime.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘Mothers who wish to introduce solids before six months should always talk to health professionals first.’
The first study was too small to get excited about and the second was epidemiological specualtion
Soya could boost the battle against prostate and breast cancer, scientists believe. The potential health benefits of the bean have been highlighted in two separate studies.
In one, researchers from Northwestern University, Chicago, found that one pill a day of genistein, a natural isoflavone chemical in soya, seemed to slow or stop the spread of prostate cancer.
Although it was tested on a small group of only 38 men, scientists say the results could lead to the first non-toxic treatment that prevents cancer cell movement.
Professor Raymond Bergan said: ‘The first step is to see if the drug has the effect that you want on the cells and the prostate, and the answer is yes, it does. ‘If this drug can effectively stop prostate cancer from moving in the body, theoretically a similar therapy could have the same effect on the cells of other cancers. 'This could be the first therapy for any cancer that is non-toxic and targets and inhibits cancer cell movement.'
In the second study, of almost 1,300 women, researchers from the University at Buffalo, New York, showed isoflavones from soya can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. Researcher Anne Weaver found those with the highest isoflavone intake had a 30 per cent lower risk of an invasive breast tumour and a 60 per cent lower risk of a low-grade tumour.
Ms Weaver and colleagues evaluated 683 women with breast cancer and compared them with 611 healthy women. She said: 'Like most dietary studies, these findings are not definitive and need to be considered in the context of further follow-up and confirmation. 'Still, we definitely saw a reduction that deserves further investigation.'