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Low birth weight, less breastfeeding create later health risks

by Kurt Kleiner Mar 26 / 14

Lower weight babies and babies who aren’t breastfed or not breastfed for long are at greater risk of developing chronic inflammation and related health problems later in life.

Longer breast feeding reduces the chances of later chronic inflammation, according to new research. Photo: iStock.

 “There were good reasons to hypothesize that breastfeeding was important to influence levels of inflammation in adulthood,” says Thomas McDade (Northwestern University), a CIFAR Fellow in the program in Child & Brain Development. “It changes the microbiome. It promotes development of the immune system. Children who are breast fed get fewer infectious diseases and are less likely to become overweight.”

Connections have been made previously with both low birth weight and less breastfeeding and later poor health outcomes. The new study suggests one mechanism for the poor outcomes. It shows that both factors lead to elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is an indicator of inflammation.

Although inflammation can be a good thing when it’s in reaction to an infection, for instance, chronic inflammation is associated with risks such as heart attack, diabetes and other problems, McDade says.

McDade and his colleagues looked at a study that contained health information on 10,500 US adults, including their CRP levels, their birth weight, and whether and for how long they had been breastfed as babies. The study was especially useful because it included information for many siblings.

Trying to figure out the role of birth weight and breastfeeding in long-run health outcomes is complicated because children born to parents with less income and less education are also more likely to have low birth weight and less breastfeeding. That means it’s never clear if other factors are also in play.

But because of the number of siblings in the study, the researchers were able to show that even within the same family, birth weight and breastfeeding matter to inflammation in adulthood.

McDade was lead author on the paper, which will be published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society