By Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD
August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month and is a great time to talk about some of the benefits and surprising facts about breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months of life to continue with complementary foods until age 1 year or longer, according to the CDC. Recent recommendations about food allergy prevention have allowed for a little more flexibility in introducing complementary foods as early as 4 months, if appropriate and based on risk, to prevent peanut allergies. More than 80% of babies born in the U.S. begin life breastfed, however, this rate goes down to about 57% by 6 months, with just 36.2% still breastfed at 1 year of age. These rates vary greatly by location around the country, race, and age of the mother.
One reason that many women begin breastfeeding – and continue – is because of the many health benefits for the baby and for mom. According to the Office of Women’s Health, “breastfeeding saves lives, money, and time.” For babies, breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of many diseases and conditions, such as obesity, eczema, type 2 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and more. For mothers, breastfeeding confers protection against the development of type 2 diabetes, certain types of breast and ovarian cancers. But can breastfeeding affect food allergies?
The short answer is that research has not drawn a straight line between breastfeeding and food allergy prevention. According the AAP, there is insufficient evidence to determine the influence of breastfeeding on food allergies. However, breastfeeding for 3-4 months decreases the incidence of eczema, which is a risk factor for developing food allergies. In the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study, parents introduced six common allergens to breastfed babies at 6 months of age to see if early introduction of allergens reduced the prevalence of food allergies. While study results were limited because of poor adherence, breastfed infants who did follow the protocol had lower rates of peanut and egg allergies at the end of the study period. The bottom line about breastfeeding and food allergies from AAP is that breastfeeding mothers do not need to modify their diets to prevent food allergies.
Breastfeeding provides positive benefits to mother and baby. When mothers choose to breastfeed, babies can have lower risks for a number of disease conditions, which may include reducing the risk of eczema, a risk factor for developing food allergies. Beyond breastfeeding, parents can help reduce the risk of a child developing peanut allergies through early introduction of peanut foods – around 4-6 months, depending on a child’s risk factors. Learn more about peanut allergy prevention at PreventPeanutAllergies.org.