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Breastfeed longer for child's mental wellbeing

Extending an infant's breastfeeding period could be beneficial for his mental health in the long run, Australian researchers think.

They said that babies who are breastfed for longer than six months could be at lower risk of mental health problems later in life.

"Breastfeeding for a longer duration appears to have significant benefits for the onward mental health of the child into adolescence," Dr Wendy H. Oddy of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research in West Perth and her colleagues reported in The Journal Of Pediatrics.

Breastfeeding could help babies cope better with stress, the researchers noted, and may also signal a stronger mother-child attachment. These are benefits that could last.

Dr Oddy and her colleagues studied 2,366 children born to women enrolled in the Western Australia Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study. Each of the children underwent a mental health assessment when they were two, five, eight, 10 and 14 years old.

Eleven per cent were never breastfed, 38 per cent were breastfed for less than six months and just over half were breastfed for six months or longer.

The mothers who breastfed for less than six months were younger, less educated, poorer, more stressed and also more likely to be smokers than the mothers who breastfed for a longer time. They were also more likely to suffer from postpartum depression and their babies were more likely to have growth problems.

At each of the assessments, the researchers found, children who were breastfed for shorter periods of time had worse behaviour.

Differences were seen in internalised behaviour where negativity is directed inwards, for example in depression; and in externalised behaviours such as aggression.

For each additional month a child was breastfed, behaviour improved.

Breastfeeding for six months or longer remained positively associated with the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents after the investigators factored in social, economic and psychological differences as well as early life events.

They concluded: 'Interventions aimed at increasing breastfeeding duration could be of long-term benefit for child and adolescent mental health."

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