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Breastfeeding Infant For More Than 6 Months Linked To Lower Risk Of Childhood Leukemia

Breastfeeding
A new study reviewed past research on the breastfeeding and leukemia link, finding that infants who were breastfed for more than six months had a 19 percent reduction in the risk of childhood leukemia. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Infants who are breastfed for six months or more see a reduction in their risk of childhood leukemia, compared to babies who were never breastfed (and were instead given infant formula), according to a new study out of the University of Haifa, Israel.

The study follows in the footsteps of several past studies that have associated breastfeeding with a lowered risk of leukemia. In a 1999 study, researchers found that infants who were breastfed for over six months had a lower risk of childhood acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) compared to those who weren’t breastfed. Another study, published in 2012, came to another interesting finding: The longer babies are fed infant formula, the higher their risk for ALL.

Breastfeeding has also been linked to various other health impacts — from protecting the baby against chronic disorders later in life, to improving their cognitive ability and even IQ. It’s also important for proper digestive development (balancing out the baby’s gut bacteria). Breastfeeding also has beneficial aspects for the mother herself, by lowering her risk of recurring breast cancer, keeping her connected with her baby, and possibly even preventing her from relapsing back into smoking after she quits.

In the most recent research, the authors reviewed 18 studies that had previously examined the association between breastfeeding and childhood leukemia. They found that breastfeeding for six months or more had a 19 percent lower risk compared to babies who breastfed for a shorter amount of time, or didn’t breastfeed at all. While scientists aren’t entirely sure what explains this association, they posit that breast milk may contain certain anti-inflammatory components that help boost an infant’s immune system, and thus reduce their risk of cancer.

The authors argue that breastfeeding should be considered a public health initiative, as it’s an easy way to ensure safety and health among most infants and mothers.

“Because the primary goal of public health is prevention of morbidity, health care professionals should be taught the potential health benefits of breastfeeding and given tools to assist mothers with breastfeeding, whether themselves or with referrals to others who can help,” the authors write.

They continue, “The many potential preventive health benefits of breastfeeding should also be communicated openly to the general public, not only to mothers, so breastfeeding can be more socially accepted and facilitated. In addition, more high-quality studies are needed to clarify the biological mechanisms underlying this association between breastfeeding and lower childhood leukemia morbidity.”

Source: Amitay E, Keinan-Boker L. Breastfeeding and Childhood Leukemia Incidence: A Meta-analysis and Systematic Review. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015.

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