Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(1):CD003517. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003517.


Background: : Although the health benefits of breastfeeding are widely acknowledged, opinions and recommendations are strongly divided on the optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Much of the debate has centered on the so-called 'weanling's dilemma' in developing countries: the choice between the known protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infectious morbidity and the (theoretical) insufficiency of breast milk alone to satisfy the infant's energy and micronutrient requirements beyond four months of age. The debate over whether to recommend exclusive breastfeeding for four to six months versus 'about six months' has recently become heated and acrimonious.

Objectives: : The primary objective of this review was to assess the effects on child health, growth, and development, and on maternal health, of exclusive breastfeeding for six months versus exclusive breastfeeding for three to four months with mixed breastfeeding (introduction of complementary liquid or solid foods with continued breastfeeding) thereafter through six months. A secondary objective was to assess the child and maternal health effects of prolonged (greater than six months) exclusive breastfeeding versus exclusive breastfeeding for six months followed by mixed breastfeeding thereafter.

Search strategy: : Two independent literature searches were carried out, together comprising the following databases: MEDLINE (as of 1966), Index Medicus (prior to 1966), CINAHL, HealthSTAR, BIOSIS, CAB Abstracts, EMBASE-Medicine, EMBASE-Psychology, Econlit, Index Medicus for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, African Index Medicus, Lilacs (Latin American and Caribbean literature), EBM Reviews-Best Evidence, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (The Cochrane Library Issue 3, 2000), and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (The Cochrane Library Issue 3, 2000). No language restrictions were imposed. The two searches yielded a total of 2,668 unique citations. Contacts with experts in the field yielded additional published and unpublished studies.

Selection criteria: : We selected all internally-controlled clinical trials and observational studies comparing child or maternal health outcomes with exclusive breastfeeding for six or more months versus exclusive breastfeeding for at least three to four months with continued mixed breastfeeding until at least six months. Studies were stratified according to study design (controlled trials versus observational studies), provenance (developing versus developed countries), and timing of compared feeding groups (three to seven months versus later).

Data collection and analysis: : Two reviewers independently assessed study quality (using a priori assessment criteria) and extracted data.

Main results: : Twenty independent studies meeting the selection criteria were identified by the literature search: nine from developing countries (two of which were controlled trials in Honduras) and 11 from developed countries (all observational studies). The two trials did not receive high methodologic quality ratings but were nonetheless superior to any of the observational studies included in this review. The observational studies were of variable quality; in addition, their nonexperimental designs were not able to exclude potential sources of confounding and selection bias. Definitions of exclusive breastfeeding varied considerably across studies. Neither the trials nor the observational studies suggest that infants who continue to be exclusively breastfed for six months show deficits in weight or length gain, although larger sample sizes would be required to rule out modest differences in risk of undernutrition. The data are conflicting with respect to iron status, but at least in developing country settings where newborn iron stores may be suboptimal, suggest that exclusive breastfeeding without iron supplementation through six months may compromise hematologic status. Based primarily on an observational analysis of a large randomized trial in Belarus, infants who continue exclusive breastfeeding for six months or more appear to have a significantly reduced risk of one or more episodes of gastrointestinal infection. No significant reduction in risk of atopic eczema, asthma, or other atopic outcomes has been demonstrated in studies from Finland, Australia, and Belarus. Data from the two Honduran trials suggest that exclusive breastfeeding through six months is associated with delayed resumption of menses and more rapid postpartum weight loss in the mother.

Reviewer's conclusions: : We found no objective evidence of a 'weanling's dilemma'. Infants who are exclusively breastfed for six months experience less morbidity from gastrointestinal infection than those who are mixed breastfed as of three or four months, and no deficits have been demonstrated in growth among infants from either developing or developed countries who are exclusively breastfed for six months or longer. Moreover, the mothers of such infants have more prolonged lactational amenorrhea. Although infants should still be managed individually so that insufficient growth or other adverse outcomes are not ignored and appropriate interventions are provided, the available evidence demonstrates no apparent risks in recommending, as a general policy, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life in both developing and developed country settings. Large randomized trials are recommended in both types of setting to rule out small effects on growth and to confirm the reported health benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for six months or beyond.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child Development
  • Female
  • Growth
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Maternal Welfare
  • Time Factors