Breastfeeding children for six months can ward off common infections during infancy, further evidence suggests.
The findings showed babies brought up exclusively on their mother's milk were significantly more healthy than those given substitute formula feeds.
But the study found the positive effects - fewer and less severe infections - were not felt by children who were only partially breastfed.
Researchers from the University of Crete monitored the health of just under 1,000 infants for a period of 12 months. They recorded any common infections they had at one, three, six, nine and 12 months, which included respiratory and urinary infections, ear infections, stomach upsets, conjunctivitis and thrush.
The infants, drawn from a total of 6,878 births in 2004 in Crete, were routinely vaccinated and had access to a high standard of healthcare.
Researchers found the longer an infant was exclusively breastfed - with no substitute formula feeds - the lower the rate of infection.
Any infections they did pick up were less severe than those experienced by their peers who were either partially breastfed or not breastfed at all.
Factors such as parental age and education, exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, ethnicity and number of siblings influenced the frequency of infections, the findings showed.
Meanwhile, researchers concluded that antibodies passed on through the mother's milk, as well as nutritional and immunological factors, accounted for some of the differences observed.
In an article which appears in the BMJ's Archives of Disease in Childhood they conclude: 'Exclusive breastfeeding helps protect infants against common infections and lessens the frequency and severity of infectious episode not only in developing countries but also in communities with adequate vaccination coverage and healthcare standards.'
Janet Fyle, Professional Policy Advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said the findings were further evidence of the 'many benefits of breastfeeding'.
'We know that breastfeeding is the default method of infant feeding for babies; good for mothers and good for the health of the nation,' she said.
'That is why we need to continue our efforts to ensure that we maintain a high rate of breastfeeding in the UK, particularly among those women with low rates.'
But she said more needed to be done to tackle the perceived "stigma" attached to breastfeeding.
'As a nation we need to look at the issues that militate against mothers breastfeeding for longer, such as the workplace, and facilities for mothers to breastfeed when they are out and about,' she added.
'The UK needs to see breastfeeding as a normal process, and to move away from some of the outdated and negative stigma that is depressingly still attached to it, specifically breastfeeding in public.'
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), human milk is the most suitable food for newborn and young infants and exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of life is recommended.
Article: 28th September 2010 www.dailymail.co.uk
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