baby drinking formula

Breastfeeding Now, Healthy Guts Later

Whether a baby is fed breast milk or formula can change the make-up of their gut microbiome... and, later on, their risk of obesity.


The babies of mothers who exclusively breastfeed during the first three months develop a markedly different gut microbiome profile, which may mitigate obesity risks, according to a Canadian study.

Researchers examined data on 1,000 kids in their first year of life, taken from the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study.

Parents involved with the CHILD study provided information on their baby’s diet and level of breastfeeding at three, six, and 12 months.

The paper demonstrated that partially and fully formula-fed babies had a much greater chance of obesity by 12 months: a 63% and 102% increased risk respectively. Previous research has shown that obesity begins early and sets a pattern that can carry on into adulthood.

Choose the right diet for the right bacteria

Our bodies are home to around 1,000 species of bacteria and millions of viruses, and balancing this micro-community is necessary to maintain good health. An imbalanced composition of the gut microbiome – largely shaped by our diet – has been linked to an array of health conditions, including neurological and mental health disorders along with obesity.

Breastfeeding has a healthy effect on the gut microbiome: “Breastmilk is a very specialized food – not just for babies, but also for their gut bacteria,” says lead researcher Meghan Azad of the University of Manitoba. “Breastmilk contains oligosaccharides, which are complex sugars that feed specific gut bacteria.”

The cultivation of ‘good’ bacteria positively affects the storage and burning of fat as well as the use of energy. On the other hand, baby formula cultivates bacterial foes as well as friends.

“Our research showed that partial breastfeeding and exclusive formula feeding were associated with a higher microbial diversity at three months of age, meaning more types of microbes were present in the baby’s gut, as well as an abundance of a group of bacteria called Lachnospiracae, which has been associated with infants being overweight,” says co-author, Anita Kozyrskyi of the University of Alberta.

Although breastfeeding may be ideal, it is not the only factor in obesity risks – certain chemicals in plastics, birth by cesarean section, and excessive weight gain during pregnancy are other known risks. For many reasons – including medical conditions like galactosemia, low breast milk supply, and incompatible medications – breastfeeding is also not always possible.

These factors all emphasize that a multi-pronged approach to promoting healthy lifestyles is still important. A recommendation to breastfeed whenever possible is just one option that parents have to help their newborns get a head start.

‘Breast is Best’ remains the official line

This research adds to the growing pile of evidence that underlines the importance of breastfeeding, with many known benefits already established.

Protection against diseases, stopping the development of allergies, improved cognitive development, and diminished obesity risks are among the positives.

Both the Canadian government and the World Health Organization maintain that breastfeeding is the ideal option when it’s possible, and encourage new mothers to follow suit.

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Barry is a journalist, editor, and marketer for several media outlets including HeadStuff, The Media Editor, and Buttonmasher Magazine. He earned his Master of the Arts in Journalism from Dublin City University in 2017 and moved to Toronto to pursue a career in the media. Barry is passionate about communicating and debating culture, science, and politics and their collective global impact.