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.