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Breastfeeding could help counter effects of pregnancy diabetes on babies

New research suggests breastfeeding could help protect against long-lasting health issues in children whose mothers have gestational diabetes.

Prof Keith Godfrey was part of a study in Singapore which found six-year-olds whose mothers had diabetes in pregnancy had less fat in their muscles and liver, and lower blood fat levels if they were breastfed.

The findings have been published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Breastmilk different after gestational diabetes

Gestational diabetes develops during pregnancy, causing high blood sugar. It happens when the woman’s body is unable to produce enough insulin – a hormone which helps control blood sugar – to counteract the extra demands of pregnancy hormones, making it hard for the body to use insulin properly.

The condition can cause problems for the woman and baby during pregnancy and after birth. Some research has suggested the baby may be more likely to develop diabetes or become obese later in life. However, the risks of gestational diabetes can be reduced if the condition is detected early and well managed.

Mothers’ bodies adjust breastmilk according to their baby’s needs, changing for example at different stages of development. It is known to be different in women with gestational diabetes, but whether this difference helps the baby’s growth and development was unclear.

Less fat in breastfed children

The researchers used data from the Growing up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) cohort, following a group of mothers during pregnancy and their children from birth.

They studied 827 babies, all born around their due date, and their mothers. They used fasting plasma glucose (FPG) - part of the standard test for gestational diabetes - to measure the mothers’ blood sugar levels and their body’s ability to control it.

They assigned each mother-child pair to either a ‘low’ or ‘high/intermediate’ group, depending how often they breastfed and whether they also gave formula milk.

When the child was six years old, they used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure the amount of fat in their abdomen, muscles and liver. They also measured their body’s response to insulin, their total body fat, the amount of fats in their blood and their blood pressure.

Children who had been breastfed more had lower levels of fat in their muscles, liver and blood.

Prof Godfrey, Professor of Epidemiology & Human Development at the University of Southampton and nutrition theme lead at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, said:

“This research adds to the evidence that breastfeeding can help prevent childhood obesity. It shows it may even help to counteract the long-term effects that gestational diabetes can have on a child’s health.”


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