For most of us, breastfeeding was our first way of eating and obtaining energy. In fact, more than 80% of babies born in the United States are breastfed at least once. Scientific evidence indicates that a child’s eating behaviors begin to be defined in their early years. These behaviors, or in other words, how we eat, affect human development and health. For this reason, scientists have wondered if breastfeeding in its many different forms plays a role in shaping eating patterns in children.
Although previous research groups have found some links between breastfeeding and later food preferences and appetite control, they have not been consistent enough to prove that such a relationship exists. This means that results vary too much or even appear contradictory, potentially because of differences in experimental designs and methods. For example, the ages studied, as well as the definition of breastfeeding exposure, are not the same for every investigation.
Therefore, scientists from Singapore, Canada, the UK, the USA, and Australia conducted a 6-year study that tracked the eating patterns of almost a thousand children in Singapore and their relationship with breastfeeding. They grouped the infants according to their level of breastfeeding, which depended on the number of months since birth and whether they were exclusively breastfed or not during that time. The groups ranged from “high” breastfeeding to “intermediate” and “low.”
But how were eating behaviors analyzed?
In this study, “ad libitum energy intake” measured how much food a child consumed if given an all-you-can-eat lunch. Then, a few minutes after this meal, researchers served sweets and snacks and documented the amount of food that the child ate despite not being hungry. Scientists also measured how fast the child ate, how much food per bite they consumed, how long they took to eat a meal, and even the number of chews per gram of food.
Additionally, scientists asked the mothers some questions to identify other patterns that couldn’t be directly observed. These questionnaires were performed when their children were 15 months, 3 years old, and 6 years old. They included questions about food acceptance, satiety, difficulty in feeding, and overeating.
The researchers found that children with a high level of breastfeeding showed slightly less fussy or picky eating at the age of 3, although this trend almost disappeared when they were 6 years old. Surprisingly, they didn’t find any definitive links between breastfeeding and other eating behaviors. Children in the high-breastfeeding group didn’t show healthier eating patterns, such as eating more slowly, having more control over the amount of food they ate, or eating less without being hungry.
These findings indicate that breastfeeding exposure doesn’t seem to have a critical impact on how a child eats during the following years, at least for the years observed in this study. Although it might be discouraging for some, analyzing this type of relationship is essential to learn more about human development and be able to establish scientifically sound public health guidelines. Plus, even after this research, many questions remain unanswered. Would the results be different with children from another culture? Do babies’ eating patterns, such as how much or how often they eat, in turn affect their breastfeeding behavior? Does being fed breast milk by bottle matter? These questions show that further scientific research on the topic is still needed.