Babies only breastfed for a short time and those with obese mothers are more likely to develop liver disease, scientists say.
Infants who were breastfed for less than six months before starting formula milk and babies with obese mothers at the start of pregnancy, were much more likely to develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) as adolescents, according to researchers.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common liver disorder in developed countries, affecting up to one in four adults and has doubled in young adults over the last 20 years.
It occurs when fat builds up in the liver cells in people who do not drink excessive alcohol and is commonly associated with obesity and insulin resistance.
Investigators performed liver ultrasound on more than 1,100 youngsters aged 17 years, who have been followed since before birth.
Records of pregnancy and infant feeding were correlated with the presence of NAFLD during late adolescence.
Lead investigator Oyekoya Ayonrinde of the MBBS, of the School of Medicine and Pharmacology at The University of Western Australia, Perth, said: "There have been studies into the benefits of breastfeeding on other diseases, but there is little information about benefits of breastfeeding linked to liver disease.
"We therefore examined records of Australian adolescents to establish if infant nutrition and maternal factors could be associated with the subsequent diagnosis of NAFLD.
"A healthy weight of the mother and support with initiation and persistence with breastfeeding may have later benefits for the liver in their children.
"This provides additional reasons to support opportunities for women to breastfeed their infants for at least six months while delaying the start of infant formula milk.
"The important nurturing role of mothers in child health should not be underestimated."
NAFLD was diagnosed in about 15 per cent of the adolescents examined, with 94 per cent of those had been breastfed as babies.
The duration of breastfeeding before starting supplementary milk was four months in 55 per cent and six months in 40 per cent.
Adolescent children of women who were obese at the start of pregnancy were twice as likely to have NAFLD, while those fed infant formula milk before completing six months of breastfeeding had a 40 per cent increased likelihood of developing NAFLD.
Offspring of mothers who smoked at the start of pregnancy had a significantly increased risk of getting NAFLD.
Professor Anna Alisi, of the Liver Research Unit, Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital, IRCCS, in Rome, said: "This elegant observational study by Ayonrinde and colleagues is the first epidemiological evidence for the connection between maternal obesity, breastfeeding, and NAFLD.
"Human breast milk is indeed complex and it may contain various biologically-active constituents with a protective effect upon obesity and obesity-related conditions that remain largely unexplored. The mechanisms for this merit further study.
"This study further supports the need to encourage comprehensive healthy lifestyles before and during pregnancy and prolonged exclusive breastfeeding for the long-term health benefits of future generations."
The study was published in the Journal of Hepatology.