OBJECTIVE:

To examine the associations of duration of exclusive breastfeeding with infections in the upper respiratory (URTI), lower respiratory (LRTI), and gastrointestinal tracts (GI) in infancy.

METHODS:

This study was embedded in the Generation R Study, a population-based prospective cohort study from fetal life onward in the Netherlands. Rates of breastfeeding during the first 6 months (never; partial for <4 months, not thereafter; partial for 4–6 months; exclusive for 4 months, not thereafter; exclusive for 4 months, partial thereafter; and exclusive for 6 months) and doctor-attended infections in the URTI, LRTI, and GI until the age of 12 months were assessed by questionnaires and available for 4164 subjects.

RESULTS:

Compared with never-breastfed infants, those who were breastfed exclusively until the age of 4 months and partially thereafter had lower risks of infections in the URTI, LRTI, and GI until the age of 6 months (adjusted odds ratio [aOR]: 0.65 [95% confidence interval (CI): 0.51–0.83]; aOR: 0.50 [CI: 0.32–0.79]; and aOR: 0.41 [CI: 0.26–0.64], respectively) and of LRTI infections between the ages of 7 and 12 months (aOR: 0.46 [CI: 0.31–0.69]). Similar tendencies were observed for infants who were exclusively breastfed for 6 months or longer. Partial breastfeeding, even for 6 months, did not result in significantly lower risks of these infections.

CONCLUSIONS:

Exclusive breastfeeding until the age of 4 months and partially thereafter was associated with a significant reduction of respiratory and gastrointestinal morbidity in infants. Our findings support health-policy strategies to promote exclusive breastfeeding for at least 4 months, but preferably 6 months, in industrialized countries.

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