CHICAGO (AP) -- A study of more than 16,000 European mothers offers some of the strongest evidence yet that breast-feeding makes babies healthier.
Babies whose mothers participated in an intensive breast-feeding program had significantly fewer intestinal infections and eczema.
Other studies have linked breast-feeding with similar benefits and a host of others, including fewer earaches, colds and asthma. But most, if not all, of those studies were after-the-fact research: Doctors looked at data on babies whose mothers had or had not breast-fed them.
For this study, published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, hospitals were assigned at random to institute a breast-feeding program.
Researchers have been reluctant to do a randomized breast-feeding study because of concerns about the ethics of withholding a treatment or practice that is widely thought to be beneficial, such as breast-feeding.
Dr. Michael S. Kramer of McGill University in Montreal and colleagues sought to avoid that conflict by essentially comparing women who breast-fed a lot with women who breast-fed but switched to bottle-feeding early on.
Participants gave birth at 31 hospitals or clinics in the Eastern European republic of Belarus. Half of them implemented a breast-feeding program in which doctors and midwives gave instruction and counseling. The other hospitals served as a control group and provided the usual obstetric care.
By 12 months, nearly 20 percent of the infants who were part of the breast-feeding program were still nursing, while 11.4 percent of the control group were.
About 9 percent of the infants who had been in the breast-feeding program had at least one intestinal infection in the first year, compared with about 13 percent of the control group. About 3 percent of the breast-fed infants developed atopic eczema, a scaly, allergy-associated skin irritation, compared with 6 percent of the other babies.
"The real and clear message is that breast-feeding, especially prolonged breast-feeding, affects child health," Dr. Ruth A. Lawrence of the University of Rochester Medical Center said in an accompanying editorial.
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