Breastfed babies are five times less likely to end up in hospital with gastro-enteritis than formula-fed babies. They are also much less likely to end up in hospital with respiratory disease in their early years. Breast milk is said to protect against diabetes and obesity, so does it really make a difference that it may not protect children against asthma and allergies as well?
Yes, says Dr Michael Kramer, who carried out the new study. His trial – which was carried out in Belorussia, and is published in the new edition of the British Medical Journal – had surprising results.
We found not only that there was no protective effect, but the results even suggested an increased risk of positive allergic skin tests.
There has long been debate about all the benefits of breastfeeding. There is little doubt that breast milk provides many protective properties, and that it is wholly natural. British government advice is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life – although the most recent figures show that less than one percent of women do so. When it comes to asthma and allergies, however, different studies appear to come to different conclusions. Some suggest that breastfeeding boosts a baby’s immune system, so protecting it against allergies; others, like this one, say it has no effect.
“Whether breastfeeding protects against the development of allergy and asthma has been frequently studied and hotly debated for more than 70 years,” says Dr Kramer, a professor at McGill University.
But Tam Fry, chairman of The Child Growth Foundation, says that we are all making too much of the new research.
“It happens that some babies who are breastfed still get asthma, and some don’t. That’s no great surprise - there are many ways that you can get asthma – and it would be absolute nonsense not to breastfeed because it may not protect a child against this. Breastfeeding protects against a whole lot of other things.
My advice would be to breastfeed despite everything. Breast milk is the best form of nutrition for the first six months of life and is not promoted enough in the UK. The health benefits of breastfeeding are very tangible.