Breastfeeding and food allergies

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I was speaking to my cousin recently after she had read my first blog on food intolerances and she brought to my attention a thought I had never actually considered – the link between breastfeeding and food allergies. She had recently read an article written by Karen Zeretzke who presents this very argument.

Zeretzke, who wrote this article in 1998, claims the earlier and more regularly a food is ingested by a human baby, the greater the likelihood of developing an allergy to this particular food. This means babies are most commonly allergic to foods they have been offered first. If, however, a baby is solely breastfed, the baby is only exposed to the foods the mother has eaten therefore the risk of developing allergens is significantly reduced. Zeretzke’s article, which is backed up by a number of other theorists, concludes that one of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding for the first six months is the protection it provides from allergies. For example, she pointed out that milk allergies are seven times greater in babies who were fed artificial baby milk (baby powder) rather than being breastfed.

When I first heard these facts I dismissed them, yet the more I thought about it, the more I thought there could be some plausibility in the argument. I myself wasn’t breastfed. I was on formula and a bottle after about a week. Now I have quite a number of foods I must avoid. Then again, my younger sister was also bottle fed and she’s yet to discover any food allergies. Naturally I asked Google what it thought. As us Gen-Y-ers all know, Google has the answers. What I discovered was a completely opposing, more recent opinion on this whole debate.

Experts now believe breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months may not be particularly beneficial for babies. The current advice suggests babies should be weaned at six months, however experts are now saying solid food could be introduced as early as four months. In fact, they suggest the later the baby is weaned, the higher the risk of food allergies and iron deficiency levels.

As this argument was presented only last January, the debate still rages about which is really better for babies. Should we be weaning at four months, six months, or when the mother feels the baby is ready? Do those few months really have a big impact on whether or not a child will develop food allergies?

It’s an interesting and complex question, and I would be interested to see what your opinions are on this particular topic. If you want to read more about these arguments, the Zeretzke article can be found here and the BBC news article from last January can be explored here

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8 thoughts on “Breastfeeding and food allergies

  1. I am not convinced that breastfeeding or lack thereof has any bearing on allergies. I do suspect that the withholding of certain foods such peanuts for too long may cause problems, but I don’t know. Fact is, nobody knows yet.
    I think breastfeeding is preferable for optimal emotional and physical development, but for any number of reasons it may not be possible or practicable.
    My daughter Olive has been breastfed exclusively (now well and truly on solids too), because that’s what we wanted to do. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for everybody though. Good topic!

  2. I agree with Hayley. My youngest granddaughter, fully breastfed for over 6 months has numerous allergies. Eggs, all nuts, fish, cats, dust etc. These allergies developed long before she ever ate any solid food. The fish one first showed when her mother kissed her after eating fish. Her younger brother has no allergies and nor does her mother. Her father (my son) is allergic to grass pollen. Allergies run in my family to varying degrees. I think it is luck and to a certain extent hereditary. It also various from person to person. One of my daughters can only use one brand of makeup, that one will give me excema.

    To make mothers feel guilty about bottle feeding seems to be fashionable and is extremely judgmental and ignorant.

  3. Hmmmm….firstly, weaning does not mean ceasing breastfeeding, it means (from Olde English) ‘to accustom to something different’. It would appear that there is complete consensus (WHO, NZ MoH, La Leche League, Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, US Academy of Pediatrics….that ‘exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months then introducing family foods (and especially iron-rich foods) while breastfeeding continues into the second year of life and beyond – as long as mother and baby want’ is the way to go.

    Exposure to allergens via mother’s milk dilutes the allergic response, and protects against allergies. In some countries (Israel) babies are introduced to highly allergenic foods – peanuts as used as a weaning paste- and the rate of peanut allergy there is minimal compared with here.
    The is assuming of course that we only consider this ‘benefit’ of breastfeeding – let alone the multitude of other medical, social, cognitive, immunological and nutritive pluses. It is more correct to say that artificially fed babies are at risk of deficits than that BF babies are advantaged.

  4. I think if you look hard enough, you’ll find ‘research’ on just about anything. Google can be really helpful but it can also make things much more confusing. I am the mum of a young baby with bad eczema and we’re waiting on the results of her recent RAST blood tests to see if there are food allergies, and thus foods I’ll need to avoid while breastfeeding. But I do find it hard to believe that research says breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months may not be particularly beneficial – sorry but this is what our bodies are designed for, we are mammals after all.

  5. I personally think its luck of the draw too.

    Both of my children were formula fed and neither of them suffer from any type of allergy at all (touch wood).
    Yet I know of lady who breast fed both her boys till they were around 1ish and was careful with what food she introduced into their diet yet both boys have wheat and dairy allergies and its not genetic…

  6. I have two sons, both breastfed (the first to 10.5 months, the second to 14 months). I ate exactly the same way when pregnant and breastfeeding them both, although had to eliminate many foods from my diet when my second son aged 8 months was tested for allergies and reacted severely to cows milk, soy, and egg (along with cats and grass). He developed terrible eczema at 5 weeks and still has it now, aged almost 3. Whe I was breast feeding him his ezcema would worsen if I ate any dairy product….

    My first son has perfect glowing skin, and no allergies.

    I reckon it is the luck of the draw with allergies, and a huge thing to deal with as a parent of a child with allergies – being responsible for everything that goes near them or in their little mouths. Support and education for parents of babies with allergies would be more helpful than them worrying that bottle feeding may be the cause of it…..

  7. My son was a very long baby and I breastfed him “on demand” about every 3 hours. He cried a lot and on advice from a mother of a friend I gave him 1/2 teaspoon of Baby Rice once a day at 2 months. The Plunket nurse and I had to agree to disagree because it worked! He is 6’3inches,no allergies.
    My daughter was adopted, so formula fed and at 15 found she had lots of minor allergies. She had developed excema. At the Parnell Allergy clinic she was treated for the foods and is almost 100% now. Just has to watch fresh oranges and some orange fruit juices. The Allergy clinic discontinued this treatment. They say it doesn’t wortk but it did for her.
    From 15 my daughter used Alpha milk for 7 yrs and that helped too. So maybe it was the formula milk?
    They are both in their 30’s.

  8. Hmm, I have a nut allergy (not life-threatening) and I was breastfed to about 4 months. Nuts weren’t intorduced into my diet early and the first time I was given any (at the age of about 2) I had a reaction, so the theory that food being introduced too early leads to allergies seems implausible in my case. My father has the exact same reaction as I do to nuts when he eats buckwheat so in our case a genetic cause seems much more likely. Whatever the case, I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets tired of constant mixed messages being given to new parents and new mothers being looked down on for the choices they make when caring for their children.