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Health outcomes associated with infant feeding

Breastfeeding is important for many reasons. It has long been known that breastfeeding is important when it comes to health outcomes.

Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed babies. Normal, however, does not always mean the most common way to feed babies, but it does mean that breastfeeding is the biological norm. So, any other way of feeding a baby, and the subsequent change in health outcomes, has to be compared to breastfeeding. What this means is, there are no ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding, rather there are risks of not breastfeeding.

When it comes to health outcomes associated with infant feeding, the longer the total duration of breastfeeding and the longer the period of exclusive breastfeeding within the first 6 months, the lower the risks.

Health outcomes

The following are health outcomes associated with infant feeding for which there is convincing scientific evidence. This list includes results from studies where all types of breastfeeding (including partial breastfeeding), not just exclusive breastfeeding, are included. For all of the following, there is a dose-response relationship between breastfeeding and the health outcome, meaning that the less breastfeeding that occurs, the higher the risks.

For the child not being breastfed, or being breastfed for shorter lengths of time, increases the risk of:

  • SIDS
  • gastrointestinal infections
  • respiratory infections
  • ear infections
  • necrotising enterocolitis in premature babies
  • sepsis in premature babies
  • dental malocclusions
  • overweight and obesity
  • lower IQ.

For the mother, not breastfeeding increases the risk of:

  • breast cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure


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Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer 2002, Breast cancer and breastfeeding: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 countries, including 50 302 women with breast cancer and 96 973 women without the disease. Lancet 360:187–195.

Kramer MS, Matush L, Vanilovich I, Platt RW, Bogdanovich N, Sevkovskaya Z et al 2008, Breastfeeding and child cognitive development. New evidence from a large randomised trial, Archives General Psychiatry 65(5): 578–584.

Hauck FR, Thompson JM, Tanabe KO, Moon RY, Vennemann MM 2011, Breastfeeding and reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome: a meta-analysis, Pediatrics 128(1):103–110.

Hornell A, Lagstrom H, Lande B, Thorsdottir I 2013, Breastfeeding, introduction of other foods and effects on health: a systematic literature review for the 5th Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. Food Nutr Res 57:10.3402/fnr.v57i0.20823.

Horta BL, Victora CG  2013, Long-term effects of breastfeeding: a systematic review, Geneva: World Health Organization.

Jordan SJ, Cushing-Haugen KL, Wicklund KG, Doherty JA, Rossing MA 2012, Breastfeeding and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer. Cancer Causes Control 23:919-927.

Luan NN, Wu QJ, Gong TT, Vogtmann E, Wang YL, Lin B 2013, Breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk: a meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr 10.3945/ajcn.113.062794

Lucas A, Cole TJ 1990, Breast milk and necrotising enterocolitis. Lancet 336(8730):1519–1523.

National Health and Medical Research Council 2012, Infant Feeding Guidelines, Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.

Rameez RM, Sadana D, Kaur S, Ahmed T, Patel J, Khan MS, Misbah S, Simonson MT, Riaz H, Ahmed HM 2019, Association of maternal lacation with diabetes and hypertension: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 2(1):e1913401.

Rosenblatt KA, Thomas DB 1993, Lactation and the risk of epithelial ovarian cancer - The WHO Collaborative Study of Neoplasia and Steroid Contraceptives. Int J Epidemiol 22:499–503.

Su D, Pasalich M, Lee AH, Binns CW 2013, Ovarian cancer risk is reduced by prolonged lactation: a case-control study in southern China. Am J Clin Nutr 97(2):354-359.

Victora CG, Bahl R, Barros AJD, Franca GVA, Horton S, Krasevec J, Murch S, Sankar MJ, Walker N, Collins NC 2016, Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. The Lancet Breastfeeding Series Group 387:475-490.

Victora CG, Horta BL, Loret De Mola C, Quevedo L,Pinheiro RT, Gigante DP, Goncalves H, Barros FC 2015, Association between breastfeeding and intelligence, educational attainment, and income at 30 years of age: a prospective birth cohort study from Brazil. Lancet 3:e199-205.

Yan J, Liu L, Zhu Y, Huang G, Wang PP 2014, The association between breastfeeding and childhood obesity: a meta-analysis. BMC Public Health 14(1):1267.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association July 2020




Last reviewed: 
Jul 2020