The role of breastfeeding in modulating epigenetic factors has been suggested as a possible mechanism conferring its benefits on child development but it lacks evidence. Using extensive DNA methylation data from the ALSPAC child cohort, we characterized the genome-wide landscape of DNA methylation variations associated with the duration of exclusive breastfeeding and assessed whether these variations mediate the association between exclusive breastfeeding and BMI over different epochs of child growth.
Exclusive breastfeeding elicits more substantial DNA methylation variations during infancy than at other periods of child growth. At the genome-wide level, 13 CpG sites in girls (miR-21, SNAPC3, ATP6V0A1, DHX15/PPARGC1A, LINC00398/ALOX5AP, FAM238C, NATP/NAT2, CUX1, TRAPPC9, OSBPL1A, ZNF185, FAM84A, PDPK1) and 2 CpG sites in boys (IL16 and NREP), mediate the association between exclusive breastfeeding and longitudinal BMI. We found enrichment of CpG sites located within miRNAs and key pathways (AMPK signaling pathway, insulin signaling pathway, endocytosis). Overall DNA methylation variation corresponding to 3 to 5 months of exclusive breastfeeding was associated with slower BMI growth the first 6 years of life compared to no breastfeeding and in a dose-response manner with exclusive breastfeeding duration.
Our study confirmed the early postnatal period as a critical developmental period associated with substantial DNA methylation variations, which in turn could mitigate the development of overweight and obesity from infancy to early childhood. Since an accelerated growth during these developmental periods has been linked to the development of sustained obesity later in life, exclusive breastfeeding could have a major role in preventing the risks of overweight/obesity and children and adults through DNA methylation mechanisms occurring early in life.