The study, published in the British Medical Journal last week as Dr Mary Fewtrell and her co-authors said that breastfeeding for six months – rather than introducing solids at three or four – was associated with poor iron status and did not seem to have any bearing on food allergies nor growth.
The study has attracted widespread media coverage, given that the WHO advises that babies be exclusively breast or formula fed for the first six months of life. This advice has been translated into recommendations by public health officials in a number of countries, including the UK.
However Fewtrell and colleagues are questioning the basis of the WHO research, and suggest a re-evaluation of the evidence, taking in more recent findings, may be called for.
Baby Milk Action has pointed out that the study is not based on new data but observation only.
The organisation said it “expects this new study and the media coverage it is generating to be used by companies in their attempt to weaken national policies and legislation requiring complementary foods to be labelled for use from 6 months.”
It says that in the UK baby food companies are already labelling baby foods for use from the age of 4 months – despite the government recommendation that babies be exclusively breast fed or formula fed for the first six months. Once solid foods are introduced at around 6 months, the UK policy is to progress in line with individual babies’ progress and acceptance.
Baby Milk Action also points out that although the researchers declare they received no external funding for the study, three of the four do declare that they have “performed consultancy work and/or received research funding from companies manufacturing infant formulas and baby foods within the past 3 years”.
The UK introduced its recommendation in line with WHO thinking in 2003, and since then there has been a reduction in the number of mothers giving solids to their babies before 4 months, according to Baby Milk Action.
“Since it is widely accepted that very early introduction carries greater risk (particularly of coeliac disease), the UK policy could be considered from this perspective a success.”
BMJ 2011; 342:c5955 doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5955 (Published 13 January 2011)
Six months of exclusive breast feeding: how good is the evidence?
Mary Fewtrell, David C Wilson, Ian Booth, Alan Lucas