Does Breastfeeding Prevent Food Allergies?

A study was recently published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy entitled “The association between infant feeding practices and subsequent atopy among children with a family history of asthma.” This study, performed by researchers in Sydney, Australia evaluated the effectiveness of breastfeeding and delaying the introduction of solid foods on preventing asthma and allergies, including food allergies.

While I have no criticism to offer for the study itself, The Australian picked up on it and published a story carrying the headline “Breastfeeding worsens asthma, allergies in children.” I am afraid that someone reading the headline and the article accompanying it might conclude that breastfeeding is actually a bad idea.

I reviewed the study, and found it to be not nearly as alarming as the newspaper article made it sound. The following items summarize the results from the study:

  • “In 516 children evaluated at age 5 years, there was no significant association between the duration of breastfeeding or timing of introduction of solid foods and protection against asthma or other allergic disease.”
  • “Breastfeeding for 6 months or more and introduction of solid foods after 3 months were both associated with an increased risk of atopy at age 5 years.” (“Atopy” simply means allergies or asthma.)
  • “There was no significant association between the presence of eczema at 4 weeks and at 3 months and continued breastfeeding beyond those times.”

The study concluded “Longer duration of breastfeeding and later introduction of solid foods did not prevent the onset of asthma, eczema or atopy by age 5 years.”

I feel that there are two important points to be made. First, studies in this area have produced conflicting results, with some showing that breast feeding offers modest protection, some showing no effect, and others showing increased rates of allergy. Second, breastfeeding has far too many health benefits to recommend against doing it, even if it might slightly increase the chance of future allergy. Until we have more conclusive evidence, the recommendation is to continue breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is still far safer than cow’s milk.