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Int J Epidemiol. 1997 Apr;26(2):349-56.

Association of breastfeeding and stunting in Peruvian toddlers: an example of reverse causality.

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  • 1Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.



Child feeding recommendations include breastfeeding beyond 12 months, however, some researchers have reported increased rates of malnutrition in breastfed toddlers. A negative association between growth and breast-feeding may reflect reverse causality; that is, the outcome (growth) is a determinant of the predictor (breastfeeding), and not vice versa. We examined this question with data from 134 Peruvian toddlers.


A linear regression analysis predicted length at the age of 15 months by length at 12 months, study interval, and 12-14.9-month breastfeeding, complementary food intake, and diarrhoeal incidence. This analysis defined the association between breastfeeding and linear growth. To elucidate the direction of the effect between breastfeeding and linear growth, logistic regression was used to predict the probability of weaning by the end of 14 months. Determinants included weight-for-age (W/A) at 12 months, complementary food intake at 9-11.9 months, and change in diarrhoeal incidence between 9 and 14.9 months.


There was a significant (P < 0.01) interaction of breastfeeding, diarrhoeal incidence, and complementary food intake on length at 15 months. Increased breastfeeding was associated with a 1.0 cm decrease in length gain when dietary intake was low and diarrhoeal morbidity was high, implying that breastfeeding is harmful. The logistic analysis, however, demonstrated that the risk of weaning decreased only when W/A and dietary intake were low and diarrhoeal morbidity was high.


The negative association between breastfeeding and linear growth reflected reverse causality. Increased breastfeeding did not lead to poor growth; children's poor growth and health led to increased breastfeeding. Children's health must be considered when evaluating the association of breastfeeding with anthropometric outcomes.


There has been a perplexing finding, in many developing countries, of increased rates of stunting and growth faltering in breast-fed toddlers receiving complementary foods relative to their non-breast-fed counterparts. Longitudinal data on 134 children 12-15 months of age from Lima, Peru, were used to investigate the hypothesis that the negative association between growth and breast feeding reflects reverse causality. The toddlers were participants in a broader persistent diarrhea surveillance survey conducted during 1985-87. 72.9% of children were breast-fed beyond 12 months (median duration, 16.8 months). Anthropometric measurements revealed stunting in 19.4% of toddlers at 12 months and in 29.1% at 15 months. Linear growth between 12 and 15 months had a complex relationship with breast feeding, diarrhea, and dietary factors. Increased breast feeding was associated with a 1.0 cm decrease in length gain between 12 and 15 months when dietary intake was low and diarrheal morbidity was high. However, logistic analysis demonstrated that mothers whose children had low dietary intakes, low weight-for-age, and increased incidence of diarrhea were less likely to wean their infants at 12 and 14 months. This finding that mothers modified their children's feeding practices according to the child's health and growth status supports a reverse causality process in which poor growth is a determinant rather than a result of breast feeding.

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