Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding

Cochrane Review by Kramer MS, Kakuma R

This record should be cited as: Kramer MS, Kakuma R. Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD003517. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003517.

ABSTRACT

Title

Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding

Background

Although the health benefits of breastfeeding are widely acknowledged, opinions and recommendations are strongly divided on the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Much of the debate has centered on the so-called 'weanling's dilemma' in developing countries: the choice between the known protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infectious morbidity and the (theoretical) insufficiency of breast milk alone to satisfy the infant's energy and micronutrient requirements beyond four months of age.

Objectives

To assess the effects on child health, growth, and development, and on maternal health, of exclusive breastfeeding for six months versus exclusive breastfeeding for three to four months with mixed breastfeeding (introduction of complementary liquid or solid foods with continued breastfeeding) thereafter through six months.

Search strategy

We searched the following databases: MEDLINE (as of 1966), Index Medicus (before 1966), CINAHL, HealthSTAR, BIOSIS, CAB Abstracts, EMBASE-Medicine, EMBASE-Psychology, EconLit, Index Medicus for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, African Index Medicus, LILACS (Latin American and Caribbean Health Sciences), EBM Reviews-Best Evidence, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials. The two searches yielded a total of 2668 unique citations. Contacts with experts in the field yielded additional published and unpublished studies. The updated review extended the literature searched until December 2006 and yielded 835 additional unique citations.

Selection criteria

We selected all internally-controlled clinical trials and observational studies comparing child or maternal health outcomes with exclusive breastfeeding for six or more months versus exclusive breastfeeding for at least three to four months with continued mixed breastfeeding until at least six months. Studies were stratified according to study design (controlled trials versus observational studies), provenance (developing versus developed countries), and timing of compared feeding groups (three to seven months versus later).

Data collection and analysis

We independently assessed study quality and extracted data.

Main results

We identified 22 independent studies meeting the selection criteria: 11 from developing countries (two of which were controlled trials in Honduras) and 11 from developed countries (all observational studies). Definitions of exclusive breastfeeding varied considerably across studies. Neither the trials nor the observational studies suggest that infants who continue to be exclusively breastfed for six months show deficits in weight or length gain, although larger sample sizes would be required to rule out modest differences in risk of undernutrition. In developing-country settings where newborn iron stores may be suboptimal, the evidence suggests that exclusive breastfeeding without iron supplementation through six months may compromise hematologic status. Based on studies from Belarus, Iran, and Nigeria, infants who continue exclusive breastfeeding for six months or more appear to have a significantly reduced risk of gastrointestinal and (in the Iranian and Nigerian studies) respiratory infection. No significant reduction in risk of atopic eczema, asthma, or other atopic outcomes has been demonstrated in studies from Finland, Australia, and Belarus. Data from the two Honduran trials and from observational studies from Bangladesh and Senegal suggest that exclusive breastfeeding through six months is associated with delayed resumption of menses and, in the Honduran trials, more rapid postpartum weight loss in the mother.

Authors' conclusions

We found no objective evidence of a 'weanling's dilemma'. Infants who are exclusively breastfed for six months experience less morbidity from gastrointestinal infection than those who are mixed breastfed as of three or four months, and no deficits have been demonstrated in growth among infants from either developing or developed countries who are exclusively breastfed for six months or longer. Moreover, the mothers of such infants have more prolonged lactational amenorrhea. Although infants should still be managed individually so that insufficient growth or other adverse outcomes are not ignored and appropriate interventions are provided, the available evidence demonstrates no apparent risks in recommending, as a general policy, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life in both developing and developed-country settings. Large randomized trials are recommended in both types of setting to rule out small effects on growth and to confirm the reported health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for six months or beyond.

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