Formula-feeding newborns – no matter how short – can lead to changes in the gut microbiota as early as 3-4 months of age, leading to high risks of becoming overweight later on, according to new research.

By Maria Arvaniti  

It is no news that breastfeeding is an important part of maternal care, greatly health beneficial for both mother and child. Breastmilk has been noted to support the infant’s sensory and cognitive development, protect them against infectious and chronic disease, as well as lower risks of developing obesity later in life 1. Establishment of the microbiome is vital in early childhood. In the case of breastfeeding, what role do gut microbes play? 

The breastfeeding infants had a high abundance of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteriaceae, which could protect them from being overweight later in life, while the formula-fed infants had plenty of Lachnospiraceae – previously linked to weight-gain in obese mice.

New findings by Canadian researchers shed new light on the importance of gut bacteria in relation to breastfeeding and overweight infants 4. Forbes and colleagues performed a large study involving 1087 infants, in which they showed that the timing and type of supplement feeding play a crucial role in the risk of developing obesity later in life. And guess what? This was all largely due to bacteria in the babies’ gut!

In this study, approximately half of the infants were exclusively breastfed, while the other half received formula as their source of nutrition. The team showed that as early as 3-4 months after birth, the infant’s gut microbiome is altered depending on the type of feeding – formula versus breastmilk. They revealed that these differences were linked to the risk of developing obesity after 1 year of age. The breastfeeding infants had a high abundance of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteriaceae, which could protect them from being overweight later in life, while the formula-fed infants had plenty of Lachnospiraceae – previously linked to weight-gain in obese mice5.

Complementary foods for a healthier microbiome

What’s more, another fascinating result of this research is that even short exposure to formula early in a child’s development is sufficient to shift the balance of their gut microbiome. The research demonstrated that breastfeeding infants who received formula only as newborns, during their stay in the hospital, had lower amounts of the beneficial Bifidobacteriaceae 3-4 months later, compared to those who were only fed with mother’s milk.  They also showed that, when a baby’s diet is supplemented with complementary foods instead of formula at 6 months of age, their gut microbiota is similar to this of babies with breastfeeding-only diet.

When a baby’s diet is supplemented with complementary foods instead of formula at 6 months of age, their gut microbiota is similar to this of babies with breastfeeding-only diet.

Obesity is of course a multifactorial condition, so genetics, caloric intake, as well as the nutrient types ingested are key players in weight-gain. Still, this research points out how seemingly unimportant dietary choices early in our babies’ lives can have a great impact on their later development.


Sources:

  1. World Health Organization. Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health. Available at: http://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/topics/child/nutrition/breastfeeding/en/.
  2. Harder, T., Bergmann, R., Kallischnigg, G. & Plagemann, A. Duration of Breastfeeding and Risk of Overweight: A Meta-Analysis. Am. J. Epidemiol. 162, 397–403 (2005).
  3. Uwaezuoke, S. N., Eneh, C. I. & Ndu, I. K. Relationship Between Exclusive Breastfeeding and Lower Risk of Childhood Obesity: A Narrative Review of Published Evidence. Clin. Med. Insights Pediatr. 11, 117955651769019 (2017).
  4. Forbes, J. D. et al. Association of exposure to formula in the hospital and subsequent infant feeding practices with gut microbiota and risk of overweight in the first year of life. JAMA Pediatr. 172, 1–11 (2018).
  5. Kameyama, K. & Itoh, K. Intestinal colonization by a Lachnospiraceae bacterium contributes to the development of diabetes in obese mice. Microbes Environ. 29, 427–30 (2014).