Establishing healthy eating behaviors early in life can potentially predict healthy eating behaviors later in life, and even better overall health, found new research in a Pediatrics supplement published online today.

The data comes from a follow-up study of children at 6 years of age who were previously included in the Infant Feeding Practices Study II (IFPS-II), a federal effort led by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The study followed infants almost monthly from the third trimester of pregnancy to the age of 12 months. The mothers of these infants were contacted again six years later in 2012 to provide information on diet, health, and developmental outcomes.

Good eating habits should start early. Not very surprising, right? What this research does tell us is that some feeding practices during the first year of life can carry through childhood and could affect long term health.

Here are some highlights of what the CDC study found:

  • The longer a mother breastfeeds and waits to introduce foods and drinks other than breast milk, the lower the odds her child will have ear, throat, and sinus infections at 6 years of age.
  • Children who breastfeed longer consume water, fruit, and vegetables more often at 6 years of age and consume fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages less often.
  • No association was found between breastfeeding duration and consumption of milk, sweets, or savory snacks.
  • When children drink sugar-sweetened beverages during the first year of life, this doubles the odds that they will drink sugar-sweetened beverages at 6 years of age.
  • When children eat fruit and vegetables infrequently during the first year of life, this increases the odds that they will continue to eat fruit and vegetables infrequently at 6 years of age.
  • No significant associations between exclusive breastfeeding duration or timing of complementary food introduction and overall food allergy at 6 years old. Higher maternal education, higher family income, family history of food allergy, and reported eczema before 1 year of age were significantly associated with higher odds of a child having a food allergy.

We asked Gary Emmett, MD, a regular contributor to this blog, to offer some insights and tips to parents from the study.

What are your overall impression of these findings?

We know that findings from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia show that the smells and tastes that the fetus experiences prior to birth influence what the child will like later in life. So it's not surprising that what a child experiences through their mother's breast milk and through early feedings will similarly and even more strongly influence food preferences later in life.

Did you find anything unexpected in the findings?

It was already known that breast feeding was protective of ear infections while breast feeding, but that it will still help at age 6 is almost unbelievable.

What factors effect whether a mother will breastfeed her child longer?

Higher socio-economic status and a work environment conducive to pumping or having the child brought in to feed will influence how long a mother will breast feed. Previous successful feeding also helps a mother to breastfeed for a longer period.

Why should parents avoid giving their children sugar-sweetened beverages the first year?

1) Sugar-sweetened drinks are empty calories strongly associated future obesity.
2) They are strongly associated with cavities once teeth come in.
3) They accustom children to sweet taste, which discourages drinking water

How crucial is introducing fruits and vegetables the first year of life to help establish healthy eating habits?

This and other studies show the later fruit and vegetables introduced the less eaten later in life. The problem with these results is that the homes that have a longer span of breast feeding and earlier introduction of fresh vegetables and fruits are also the homes that are more financially stable and can afford to have these healthier but more perishable foods available all the time.  At the same time, the earlier one introduces fresh, healthy foods, the more likely a child is to get a taste for these foods and to eat them later in life.

As a study summary stated, "it is not clear whether these associations reflect the development of taste preference during infancy or a family eating pattern that manifests at various ages, but the studies do point to the need to establish healthful eating behaviors early in life."

What advice can parents take away from the study about feeding during the first year of life?

1) Breast feed as long as possible.
2) Introduce baby food at six months or a little later.
3) Avoid sweets and desserts in first year of life especially sweet liquids
4) Introduce fruits and vegetables first to babies when they begin solids.

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