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Breastfeeding row over nutrients

Health chiefs have hit back at claims that feeding babies solely breast milk for the first six months of their lives does not provide them with the necessary nutrients.

Guidelines for mothers in the UK state that the best course of action is for women to breastfeed for the first half a year and then to introduce solids.

However, a team led by a paediatrician from University College London's Institute of Child Health say if babies only receive breast milk they may be more prone to allergies and could suffer iron deficiency.

In 2001, the World Health Organization announced a global recommendation that infants should be exclusively breastfed for six months.

"Many western countries, including 65% of European member states and the United States, elected not to follow this recommendation fully, or at all," the authors said.

"However, in 2003 the health minister announced that the UK would comply."

The WHO recommendation "rested largely" on a review of 16 studies, including seven from developing countries.

It concluded that babies just given breast milk for six months had fewer infections and experienced no growth problems.

But another review of 33 studies found "no compelling evidence" to not introduce solids at four to six months, the experts said.

Some studies have also shown breastfeeding for six months does not give babies all the nutrition they need.

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."

Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said: "I really must challenge the suggestion from the review that the UK should reconsider its current advice on exclusive breastfeeding for six months.

"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."

Copyright © Press Association 2011

Department of Health

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

"I believe mothers should use their own initiative in deciding whether to wean their babies on to solid food before 6 months. Breast milk contains all the necessary nutrients the baby requires for the first 4 to 6 months, provided the mother is healthy and taking a well balanced diet herself. I come from Mauritius where diabetes has reached epidemic proportions and can't help feeling that this is due to early weaning to cows' milk. I wonder if there has been any research on this" - Kresh Ramanah, London

"How did the human race survive before feeding artificial processed cows' milk products to babies? No way is something developed by nature worse for our children's health than formula. Many mothers don't really know what is put into formula and the health risks formula poses, or would not like to acknowledge it because they would feel guilty at making such a poor second rate choice. Breastfeeding is not only the best milk, but best for both mother and baby's health, bonding and attachment, and the delivery system cannot be bettered" - J Shaw, Staffordshire

"I think all babies and mothers should be treated as individuals. Some may need to start a small amount of mixed feeding earlier than others. They will of course continue to breast feed while introducing solids, no one is saying breast feeding should be stopped earlier! I don't think it is playing into the hands of the baby food manufacturers. Saying they should not have cows' milk and using "follow on milk or toddler milks is though. There is no need for a baby to have any manufactured product at all but mums need help to know how to wean to a home produced diet. Many mums don't know how to prepare healthy food for their families. There is far too much reliance on ready meals in general, not just in the baby foods" - Cathy Smith, Hertfordshire

"I think that provided the mother is not iron deficient herself, then 6 months exclusively breastfeeding is okay. But for mothers who have had more than 2 children in rapid succession iron deficiency could be a problem which is then passed on to the baby(s)" - Sue Perrin