Longer Breastfeeding, Later Introduction of Cow’s Milk Reduces Type 1 Risk in Children

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Longer Breastfeeding, Later Introduction of Cow’s Milk Reduces Type 1 Risk in Children

Babies who are breastfed for at least six months are significantly less likely to develop type 1 diabetes later on, according to a new analysis presented at the 2021 meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes and described in an article at Nursing Times. What’s more, later introduction of a few different foods — including cow’s milk — also appears to reduce the risk for type 1.

To perform their analysis, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden looked at 152 different studies to examine any connections between dietary components and type 1 diabetes. This analysis included not just what a baby or child is fed, but also what a mother eats during pregnancy. Previous research has linked several foods to the immune system’s attack on the pancreas that leads to type 1 diabetes — but until now, no major review has looked at foods or feeding behaviors that are consistently linked to type 1 diabetes.

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Breastfeeding linked to lower type 1 risk

In their analysis of 27 different dietary components in both children and pregnant mothers, the researchers found that breastfeeding was strongly linked to a lower risk for type 1 diabetes. In fact, babies who were breastfed for at least six to 12 months were 61% less likely to develop type 1 diabetes in the future than those who were breastfed for a shorter length of time. What’s more, babies who were breastfed exclusively — receiving no formula or other foods — for at least two to three months were 31% less likely to develop type 1 diabetes. Combining the two factors — breastfeeding exclusively for two to three months, and then continuing to breastfeed for six to 12 months or longer — could potentially lead to an even greater reduction in the risk for type 1 than either one by itself.

The researchers noted that breastfeeding has been shown to promote healthy immune system development, which may explain the link to type 1 diabetes. Breastfeeding has also been shown to help promote healthy gut bacteria, which are also known to play a beneficial role in immune system function.

Cow’s milk, gluten linked to higher type 1 risk

The researchers also found that drinking more cow’s milk during childhood was linked to a higher risk for type 1 diabetes. Children who drank two or three glasses of cow’s milk each day — or about 200 milliliters (6.76 fluid ounces) — were 78% more likely to develop type 1 diabetes than those who drank less cow’s milk. And babies who started drinking cow’s milk at 2 to 3 months old were 31% less likely to develop type 1 than those who started drinking it earlier. This relationship between cow’s milk and type 1 may be explained by certain amino acids in cow’s milk promoting an immune system attack on the pancreas.

Early introduction to foods that contain gluten — such as all wheat-based foods — and fruits was also linked to a higher risk for type 1. Babies who started eating gluten-containing foods at 3 to 6 months old were 54% less likely to develop type 1 than those who started on them earlier, and babies who weren’t introduced to fruit until 4 to 6 months old were 53% less likely to develop type 1 than those who started earlier.

It’s not completely clear that these specific foods increased the risk for type 1, or whether longer breastfeeding helps explain the later introduction of these foods. But earlier introduction of certain foods was not linked to a higher type 1 risk — including foods such as infant formula, meat, and vegetables. There was also no link between a mother’s intake of gluten or vitamin D during pregnancy and her child’s risk for type 1.

“Early dietary factors including cow’s milk, gluten, fruit and breastfeeding might play a role in the development” of type 1, the researchers concluded. “Further well-designed studies are needed to better understand these associations.”

Want to learn more about managing type 1 diabetes in children? Read “The Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis,” “Helping a Student-Athlete With Type 1 Diabetes,” and “Type 1 Diabetes at School: What Personnel Need to Know.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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