Breastfeeding could reduce the risk of eczema in children, according to new research into the impact of programmes designed to support new mothers in feeding their babies.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be fed just breast milk for six months to help protect them from infection, prevent allergies and provide nutrients and energy.
But many women abandon the practice soon after the birth of their child – a situation often put down to a lack of support for new mothers. The UK, for example, has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with just 1% of infants exclusively breastfed for their first six months.
Experts say the latest study highlights the benefits of breast milk, and of programmes promoting the practice, finding that children whose mothers attended a hospital where a breastfeeding support programme was implemented had a 54% reduction in the risk of eczema as teenagers.
“It seems that we can say from the trial that clearly promoting exclusively breastfeeding is beneficial, but there doesn’t seem to be an additional benefit of doing that beyond the first three months of life with regard to the protective effect on eczema in adolescence,” said Carsten Flohr, co-author of the study from King’s College London.
Writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Flohr and colleagues describe how they began the study in the 1990s in Belarus, where 31 maternity hospitals – and one outpatient clinic linked to each hospital – were randomly assigned to one of two groups: either to carry on as usual or take part in a breastfeeding programme. These schemes train nurses, midwives and doctors to encourage and support mothers to breastfeed.
Babies in the study were then followed up at various points as they grew up to explore the impact of the breastfeeding programme – including on their lung function, asthma and eczema. While self-report questionnaires were completed by the children for all three health issues, a skin examination was also carried out for eczema, and a breath-test for lung health.
The results, collected from 13,557 16-year olds, reveal that 0.3% of those whose mothers attended hospitals and clinics taking part in the educational initiative were found by experts to have signs of eczema, compared with 0.7% of those whose mothers had received only standard care. The findings from the self-reported questionnaires did not show such clear-cut benefits.
Further analysis, looked at the effect of breastfeeding duration, finding that there was no additional benefits for eczema of exclusively breastfeeding for more than three months.
The study also reveals that 39% of mothers at sites where the educational programme was implemented exclusively breastfed for between three and six months, compared to just over 6% of mothers who were not exposed to the programme.
However the authors note that eczema is less common in Belarus than in western Europe or North America, meaning the protective effects of breastfeeding might not be as clear in those countries.
Professor Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that the new study emphasised that breastfeeding brings benefits, but that these should not be exaggerated and mothers should not be demonised if they do not take up the practice.
But Hans Bisgaard, professor of paediatrics at the University of Copenhagen, said breastfeeding appeared to played only a minor role, if any, in protection against eczema, pointing out that the children who had been breastfed and did not have the condition may have been more likely to turn up to the follow-up assessment.
However, Dr Amy Brown, an expert in infant nutrition at Swansea University, said that the government should take note and offer new mothers more support. “This is a fascinating study that tells us more about how the way babies are fed might affect their health,” she said. “It is particularly interesting that this study looked at health in adolescence, meaning that breastfeeding protects children long term, rather than simply when they are being breastfed.”
Source: Guardian UK