Chronic disease and infant nutrition: is it significant to public health?

Public Health Nutr. 2011 Feb;14(2):279-89. doi: 10.1017/S1368980010001953. Epub 2010 Jul 13.


Objective: To assess the public health significance of premature weaning of infants from breast milk on later-life risk of chronic illness.

Design: A review and summary of recent meta-analyses of studies linking premature weaning from breast milk with later-life chronic disease risk is presented followed by an estimation of the approximate exposure in a developed Western country, based on historical breast-feeding prevalence data for Australia since 1927. The population-attributable proportion of chronic disease associated with current patterns of artificial feeding in infancy is estimated.

Results: After adjustment for major confounding variables, current research suggests that the risks of chronic disease are 30-200 % higher in those who were not breast-fed compared to those who were breast-fed in infancy. Exposure to premature weaning ranges from 20 % to 90 % in post-World War II age cohorts. Overall, the attributable proportion of chronic disease in the population is estimated at 6-24 % for a 30 % exposure to premature weaning.

Conclusions: Breast-feeding is of public health significance in preventing chronic disease. There is a small but consistent effect of premature weaning from breast milk in increasing later-life chronic disease risk. Risk exposure in the Australian population is substantial. Approximately 90 % of current 35-45-year-olds were weaned from breast-feeding by 6 months of age. Encouraging greater duration and exclusivity of breast-feeding is a potential avenue for reducing future chronic disease burden and health system costs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Breast Feeding / epidemiology*
  • Chronic Disease / epidemiology*
  • Chronic Disease / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Food / adverse effects
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / physiology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Milk, Human
  • Nutritive Value
  • Public Health*
  • Risk Factors
  • Weaning*