Apprehensive about breastfeeding and food allergies? Can breastfeeding your baby help stop allergies in their tracks? Consultant Paediatric Allergist Professor Adam Fox talks to us about the all-important benefits of breastfeeding during those first six months.
The benefits of breastfeeding
There are a number of reasons to breastfeed and this is widely accepted as the best thing you can do for your baby if you are able to. The first milk your breasts produce is called Colostrum, which is rich in antibodies and can help protect against the bacteria and viruses encountered outside the womb. At birth, a baby’s immune system is still immature and not developed fully so Colostrum helps to provide a barrier inside your baby’s intestine to protect it. Babies also depend heavily on antibodies obtained from their mothers while in the womb and their digestive systems are not quite ready for substances other than their mothers’ milk.
Breastfeeding can also help to reduce the risk of allergies as breastfed babies are exposed to fewer allergens in the first months of life as they are only experiencing the foods their mother eats, available via her milk.
The incidence of cow’s milk allergies appears to be higher in babies who are fed formula milk based on cow’s milk or soya instead of breast milk. Every family is different but those with a history of food allergy, hay fever, eczema or asthma, are at higher risk and should try to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months.
Your diet when breastfeeding
Although it has hugely important nutritional benefits, exclusively breastfeeding does not mean that your child will have no risk of developing allergies. Babies can develop allergies to during the early part of infancy and the baby having eczema seems to increase this risk significantly. If one or both parents have allergies, it makes it more likely that your baby will too.
If your baby is allergic to certain foods such as soy, milk, wheat or egg, these may pass from your diet into the breastmilk and cause symptoms in the baby. If your baby has an allergy to a certain food, it might not always present an immediate or obvious reaction and there can instead be a more delayed reaction, such as eczema worsening or tummy symptoms such as reflux, colic or diarrhoea, for example. Some breastfeeding mothers will notice an obvious difference in their baby’s behaviour and/or health when they eat certain foods making it more clear that your baby is showing allergic tendencies. Cow’s milk is the most common problem food but some babies will react to other foods.
The good news is that there isn’t a list of ‘high risk’ foods to avoid if you are breastfeeding. There is no evidence that avoiding specific foods during either pregnancy or breastfeeding has any effect on the chance of your baby having food allergies so there is no need to exclude anything. Previous advice to avoid peanuts was withdrawn in 2009. If you are concerned your baby may be reacting to something you are eating, then it would be worth discussing this with your GP or health visitor before removing it from your diet. Any changes in diet or food restrictions are only recommended for breastfed babies who have developed symptoms.