It’s common for new parents to worry a lot.
We worry about our children’s health, happiness and worry if we’re getting things ‘right.’ One thing we can do to quell these anxieties is to be well informed. By learning as much as we can about our concerns and not simply listening to hear-say, we can arm ourselves and be prepared for any situation that may arise.
One much-debated topic amongst new parents is breastfeeding. Everyone’s views and circumstances are different, and so there’s no one answer to whether you should or shouldn’t breastfeed, nor about how long you should do so. Many people believe that breastfeeding can help your baby avoid developing food allergies, but is this true?
Let’s take a look at the facts and address common misconceptions.
Breastfeeding: Addressing Common Misconceptions
Let’s take a look at what we know to be true and then address common misconceptions.
Why is breastfeeding beneficial for my baby?
Breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby because:
- Breast milk is the healthiest nutrition for your baby’s gut. Breastmilk is perfectly designed for your baby, so it poses a much lower risk of indigestion than formula milk
- It reduces your baby’s risk of infections
- Breastfeeding combined with a healthy diet can help reduce a child’s risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes
- Breastfeeding can also and help prevent atopic conditions like asthma
- Studies have found that exclusive breastfeeding for 3 to 4 months can decrease eczema incidences in the first 2 years of a child’s life
Is breastfeeding beneficial for mothers?
Yes. There are several benefits for mothers, which include:
When breastfeeding, a mother’s brain releases the hormone oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin brings about a feeling of connectedness and closeness, and it also helps the uterus to contract, reducing excessive postpartum blood loss.
Are the benefits of breastfeeding over-emphasized?
A study published in 2018 looked into this and concluded that the benefits may indeed be overestimated. They argued that socioeconomic factors are just as beneficial. In the US, those who consciously choose to breastfeed tend to be better educated about their baby’s needs, and so they argue that this knowledge is just as beneficial as breast milk itself.
To illustrate this point, a CDC survey in 2013 found that 70% of surveyed mothers with a college degree were still breastfeeding at 6 months. In comparison, only 38% of mothers without a high school diploma were doing so.
This is not to say that breast milk is not incredibly beneficial. It is, and so it is best to include it as a part of your baby’s early diet, whenever possible. However, if breastfeeding is not an option, simply being well informed about your baby’s needs may be the next best thing for them.
Misconception: I heard that I should avoid allergenic foods while I’m breastfeeding. Is this true?
Twenty years ago, medical professionals advised mothers to avoid allergenic foods throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Today, that advice has changed.
In 2019, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) published new guidelines. Within these guidelines, they advised that there was no evidence to suggest that common allergens should be avoided while breastfeeding. This advice was mirrored by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Misconception: I heard that breastfeeding can help prevent my baby from developing food allergies. Is this true?
This is one of the most difficult misconceptions to address because the information from reputable organizations is inconclusive. Recent studies have found no evidence to link the two. A study by AAAAI looked at 194 patients diagnosed with rhinitis (runny nose and stuffiness from allergies). These patients were given a skin-prick test and asked about their baby feeding history.
They recorded positive results for food allergies, environmental allergens, asthma, and atopic dermatitis. 134 patients were breastfed, while just 60 were formula-fed. They found no significant difference in the likelihood of developing allergies between the two groups.
Misconception: I heard that I should feed nothing but breast milk for the first 6 months of my baby’s life. Is this true?
However, feeding breast milk exclusively for the first 6 months may not actually be the best thing for your baby. While the nutritional value of breast milk can never be underestimated, waiting until your baby is 6 months means you are likely increasing the likelihood that they will develop a food allergy.
Why? Because many studies, such as the LEAP and SPADE studies, examined what happened when babies were introduced to allergens early in life, between 3 and 6 months old. Both studies found that babies that started consuming allergens (peanuts and cow’s milk respectively) early were significantly less likely to develop an allergy to that food.
How can I prevent allergies when my child transitions to semi-solid foods?
It’s best to start introducing your child to common allergenic foods as soon as they start eating semi-solid foods. This is your opportunity to take action and potentially prevent your child from developing a food allergy.
The one exception to this rule may be cow’s milk. The SPADE study found that feeding cow’s milk formula (CMF) as early as 1-2 months old could reduce the likelihood of developing a cow’s milk allergy (CMA) by 88%.
The best way to start introducing cow’s milk into your baby’s diet is by supplementing with CMF gradually. The SPADE study found that just 10ml fed each week was enough to prevent CMA, so you don’t need to make any significant changes to their diet. This can also be spread across multiple days.
Once your baby is eating semi-solid foods, you can mix foods containing cow’s milk into sauces, soups, oatmeal, or feed yogurt or cheese. It’s not recommended to feed whole cow’s milk alone during infancy because it is difficult to digest.
The LEAP study examined babies who consumed peanuts regularly until the age of 5 years old and those who avoided peanuts until they turned 5. The results were clear: just 3% of those who ate peanut products had developed an allergy by 5, while 17% of those who had avoided peanuts had an allergy.
The children involved in the LEAP study were between 4 and 11 months old when they started. For this reason, it’s a good idea to wait until your baby is 4 months old and starting semi-solid foods before introducing peanuts to them.
You do not need to start feeding whole peanuts – they are a choking hazard, so it’s best to look to peanut-containing foods or peanut butter. Those in the study were only required to consume a total of 6g of peanut protein a week in 3 or more meals or snacks.
The PETIT study investigated whether a two-step introduction of eggs to high-risk babies could reduce the likelihood of developing an egg allergy.
This two-step process involved offering babies baked eggs first, then switching to cooked eggs.
Babies were fed heated egg powder every day between 6 and 9 months old. The amount was increased from 9-12 months, and at 12 months they were given cooked eggs.
The PETIT study found that baked egg was 15 times safer for babies than introducing lightly cooked eggs (such as scrambled or fried). Babies who ate baked eggs daily could safely transition to cooked eggs at 10-12 months.
In fact, the study was so effective that the doctors involved stopped the study early. They decided it was unethical to have babies avoid baked eggs when the results were so clear.
To introduce this to your baby, try adding baked eggs to your baby’s food. There are also baked egg products available for parents.
The EAT study was the biggest study to look at a range of allergenic foods. It studied allergies to:
- cow’s milk
While the results were not as effective for other allergens, it did suggest that introduction from as early as 3 months could help prevent food allergies.
My baby already has a food allergy. What should I do differently?
If your baby already has a food allergy, it’s best to get an allergy test done so you can confidently introduce new foods. However, the AAAAI guidelines do not say this is a necessity.
Key takeaways for parents
- Breastfeeding is extremely beneficial, and so you should continue to breastfeed for as long as you are able
- It is not necessary to avoid eating allergens while you are breastfeeding
- There’s no strong evidence to suggest that breastfeeding can help prevent allergies
- However, there is strong evidence to show that introducing allergens to your baby starting at 4 months old can help prevent food allergies
The key to introducing your baby to new foods is to do so gradually. While there is no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding is beneficial for food allergy prevention, it is strongly recommended tointroduce allergens early in their life, as this will only be beneficial for them.
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.