Experts spark clash over breastfeeding

A ROW has broken out over claims by experts that UK breastfeeding guidelines could leave babies at risk from allergies and put them off some foods.

Mothers have been urged since 2003 to breastfeed exclusively for six months before introducing solids in line with World Health Organisation recommendations that it led to fewer infections.

But now experts, led by a paediatrician from University College London's Institute of Child Health, say babies could suffer iron deficiency and be more prone to allergies if they only receive breast milk throughout their first six months and are urging a UK review.

The claims were immediately criticised by midwives who insisted changes would be a retrograde step which would "play into the hands of the baby food industry".

In a review published in the British Medical Journal, researchers said a new examination of 33 studies found "no compelling evidence" against introducing solids at four to six months.

Some studies had also shown that breastfeeding for six months did not give babies all the nutrition they needed.

One US study from 2007 found that babies exclusively breastfed for six months were more likely to develop anaemia than those introduced to solids at four to six months.

There was also the issue of allergies, they said.

The authors said exclusively breastfeeding for six months was a good recommendation for developing countries, which have higher death rates from infection. But in the UK it could lead to some adverse health outcomes and may "reduce the window for introducing new tastes".

"Bitter tastes, in particular, may be important in the later acceptance of green leafy vegetables, which may potentially affect later food preferences with influence on health outcomes such as obesity," they said.

The researchers said the European Food Safety Authority's panel on dietetic products, nutrition and allergies had concluded that for infants across the EU, complementary foods may be introduced safely between four to six months.

Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, criticised the claims.

"I believe that this is a retrograde step and plays into the hands of the baby food industry which has failed to support the six-month exclusive breastfeeding policy in the UK," she said.

"The argument often advanced that the six months policy is best suited to developing countries is not strictly true.

"There is evidence that some babies do die in developed countries from inappropriate young child feeding, such as the introduction of solid foods earlier before their swallowing mechanism is mature enough or they have fully developed the capability to cope with solid foods."

She said there was "irrefutable evidence that breast milk confers many health benefits on the baby that lasts a lifetime".

"It is also of concern that we are trying to imprint healthy eating habits into children from birth and yet it is being suggested that parents introduce solid foods earlier. In reality, many parents would introduce sugar based solids which could develop the child's taste for sweet foods and impact on their eating habits later on," she added.

"The RCM remains concerned that parents continue to be given inconsistent and confusing messages on infant feeding."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "Breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs up to six months of age and we recommend exclusive breastfeeding for this time.

"Mothers who wish to introduce solids before six months should always talk to health professionals first.

"The Department of Health will review this research alongside all emerging evidence on infant feeding.

"We have asked the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to undertake a review of infant feeding, which is expected to report later this year."