/ Food & Drink, Health, Parenting

What’s the truth about breastfeeding, bottles and allergies?

Smiling baby

Headlines have recently been full of warnings that breastfeeding may not be best after all and could even ’cause allergies’. But how true are the claims and what did the research really say?

My heart sank as I heard about the ‘new’ findings that breastfed babies have more allergies. The story also implied that breastfeeding could be linked to iron deficiency and obesity.

As a mum of a one-year-old baby who has allergies to dairy, eggs and peanuts I was left wondering if I could or should have done something differently. It sounded like breastfeeding mothers were being criticised for doing what we’ve been told is best for our babies.

After listening to the story on the news several times I realised there was no information on whether these findings were based on new research.

So I googled and read the research by the British Medical Journal that the news reports were based on. The study looked at exclusive breastfeeding for six months (which means that a baby has only breastmilk and no solid food or formula), and the implications on infection, nutritional adequacy, allergy and coeliac disease.

The news story seemed to bunch all these issues together, but in fact they need to be looked at individually.

Are breastfed babies iron-deficient?

The first is pretty straightforward – nutritional adequacy refers to whether breastmilk can provide all the nutrients a baby needs until six months of age. The main concern is iron and the reason formula fed babies aren’t at risk is because formula has iron added to it.

Breastmilk is naturally low in iron and although babies are born with iron stores, by six months these are depleting. If the mother has a low-iron diet, breastmilk is unlikely to provide the baby with sufficient iron. But there are other ways to boost this – ensuring the mother has an iron-rich diet during pregnancy will increase a baby’s natural stores, and at-risk babies can be supplemented.

What causes baby allergies?

The second issue of allergies is more complex, and to me it seems it has more to do with when a baby is weaned, not if it is breastfed.

Food allergy rates are rising in developed countries despite us delaying the introduction of foods that are potentially allergenic, such as dairy and peanuts. Conversely, countries where these foods are commonly given to the young have low levels of allergies.

Because we don’t know what causes allergies we can’t be sure how to avoid the chance of getting them. And it seems that introducing foods too early or too late can increase allergies.

Many scientists believe that to develop an immune intolerance to something you need repeated exposure to it, maybe during a critical early window. The authors of this report question whether the four to six month window is the ideal critical window.

No new answers on breastfeeding

Having read the study, I realise it’s not as clear cut or definitive as the press stories implied. The benefits of breastfeeding are not being questioned, but waiting till six months to introduce our babies to solid food is. There are no new answers. The authors are saying we need to consider whether the current advice is best for the UK population, and recommend more research be carried out.

When I first heard this story I felt responsible for my baby’s allergies, assuming I’d done something wrong. But having read the original evidence I now feel annoyed about how it was reported. As a mum I’m constantly questioning whether I’m doing the right thing and feeling guilty, and coverage like this really doesn’t help.



I used to teach Mother Care – and taught the girls that weaning should start at about four months – with it being a very gradual process – None of the girls who kept in touch and became pregnant had deficiency issues.

But allergies are very different – When I joined teaching in 1970 I was appalled at the levels of allergies – something very rare in my childhood – I compared my childhood and present childhood and found a difference – dirt. I postulated a theory that children were living in sterile conditions therefore never developed antibodies early. – this was confirmed when I realised children that went camping were far healthier. So I always explained to the girls that babes should be encouraged to play in the dirt.

In about 1990 there was a scientific paper that confirmed my “theory” – Children grow up too clean.!!

Diva says:
2 February 2011

As a mother of two young children I really appreciated this article and the chance to consider things from a wider perspective. I remember waiting until exactly six months to let my little boy even sniff a banana, because I thought that was the best thing to do. I am always reading conflicting evidence and stories, which lead me to question myself and whether I did the right thing.
If there are no definitive answers then I will continue to follow the national line until told otherwise. My two children have no allergies and are now great eaters. Maybe all that waiting did them some good!

Kotko says:
2 February 2011

I followed the recommended guidelines for breastfeeding for at least 6 months and not to start weaning until 6 months stringently.

Hearing these new warnings distresses me as i remember the difficulties with breastfeeding in the early days as well as not gaining much encouragement from health workers. However I still managed to get to the 6 month mark as i was adamant to provide the best for my baby.

I would like to think this resulted in – my son not catching his first cold until he was 5 months old, has no allergies nor has been iron-deficient!

Laura says:
3 February 2011

Little enough support is given to women in this country to encourage breastfeeding as it is; we could really do without so-called ‘studies’ being poorly reported and making women further question their decision to breastfeed. By breastfeeding, women are giving their children the best possible start in life. Headlines like these don’t help.

Darkness says:
3 February 2011

I am so confused – breast feeding is not a new invention and yet the scientists insist on trying to disprove Darwin. Unless the human population as a whole is iron deficient – what is the problem? I would not be surprised if the study in question was commissioned by SMA or Aptimel!

Laura Deeg says:
5 February 2011

Really good points raised, it has made me think a bit. I feel the government advice about breast feeding from 6 months is put together with the good intention of protecting a sector of the population that would otherwise be easily led into believing the claims of formula manufacturers. The problem seems that for the rest of us because the government advice is quite clear cut, we feel guilty if we don’t follow it (often, as in my case, I couldn’t breastfeed totally) but we also feel guilty if we don’t trust our own gut instincts and the government guidelines change. Feel like guidelines need to be put together taking this into account. Would help too if the newspapers weren’t so into their headline shockers which make us feel even more guilty!!!

Mark says:
2 March 2011

Oh dear. More “Bad Science”. Even if there is a correlation between breastfeeding and increased levels of allegies then it does not show that there is a causal link between the two. I wish they wouldn’t report these studies in this way which often leads to panics and children suffering as a result. Look at the MMR vaccine for an example of this.

Chris says:
17 August 2012

Yep. Lets not be surprised if many women who breast feed also tend to keep their houses cleaner. There’s much better evidence to suggest that over cleanliness leads to allergies. That’s not to say you shouldn’t clean, but obsessively disinfecting everything means much less exposure to germs than babies would have had in the past. It seems to make sense that this could encourage an oversensitive immune system.

This is not research but an analysis of information available from various sources.

It is interesting to read the following in the article:

“MF, AL, and DCW [three of the four authors of the article] have performed consultancy work and/or received research funding from companies manufacturing infant formulas and baby foods within the past 3 years”

Disregarding whether this analysis is good or not, we should not panic every time some new opinion is published. This is a complicated issue and our understanding will gradually be improved over the years, in the same way that we understand much more about cancer and heart disease.