Breastfeeding and Eczema – What’s the verdict?

Breastfeeding has long been touted as a sort of miracle drug, helping to prevent or reduce allergies, asthma, diarrhea, obesity, urinary tract infections and ear infections in babies.

But, could exclusive breastfeeding during infancy also help reduce a child’s chances of developing eczema, even into their teenage years? New research suggests the answer is yes.

What is the research?

A report featured in JAMA Pediatrics followed 13,557 healthy-term babies delivered in 31 hospitals in Belarus. All were born in 1996-1997 and were followed through age 16. The children were divided into two groups: Those whose mothers received breastfeeding education and support versus those who did not.1

What does the research say?

The researchers found that the children whose mothers delivered in a hospital with a breastfeeding support program had a 54% reduction in the risk of eczema as teenagers compared to mothers who received no extra breastfeeding support or education.1 The rate of eczema was 0.3% in the teens of whose mothers had breastfed versus 0.7% for teens who had not been breastfed for as long or at all.

The study also found that breastfeeding did not seem to offer an additional protective effect on lung function or asthma in the teens.

How was data collected?

The diagnosis of eczema was supported by a skin examination while lung function, and symptoms of wheezing and asthma were self-reported. Asthma and allergies are two common comorbidities of eczema and its more severe relation, atopic dermatitis (AD).

How long does a mother have to breastfeed?

The study, called the Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention Trial (PROBIT), also looked into how long a mother had to breastfeed exclusively for her to protect her baby from eczema in adolescence.

The answer was three months. The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies receive only breast milk for their first six months to provide the nutrients needed for healthy growth and development.

Limitations

One important caveat from the study: Its authors acknowledged that because eczema is uncommon in Belarus, the protective effects of breastfeeding may be different in countries with a higher incidence such as those in western Europe and North America.

The study was unusual because it looked at the long-term benefits of breastfeeding on adolescents, not just on babies currently being breastfed.

How does breastfeeding impact eczema?

Atopic dermatitis (AD) is the most common type of eczema. Eczema is characterized by chronic, itchy skin and is most often diagnosed in the first six months of a baby’s life. AD is a more severe form of eczema.2

While the exact causes of eczema and AD aren’t fully understood, experts have determined that it tends to run in families, and that people with eczema have a mutation in the gene that produces the protein filaggrin.

What does filaggrin do?

Filaggrin helps the body maintain a protective top layer of the skin. When healthy, this protective layer prevents moisture from escaping and bacteria and viruses from entering. This is why people with eczema tend to have dry, sensitive, inflamed and infection-prone skin.2

Scientists do not yet understand how or why breastfeeding may reduce the incidence or severity of skin conditions such as eczema and AD.

Breast is best for AD?

However, research is conclusive that breastfeeding helps reduce the risk of a child developing asthma and allergies, two conditions common in children with eczema.3 This is yet another reason why doctors recommend breastfeeding for as long as possible and introducing solid foods carefully since babies with eczema and AD are prone to food allergies as well.4

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