“Breastfeeding has an important role in reducing the risk of developing asthma in early childhood,” concluded two studies—one conducted by US researchers, and one spearheaded by a group from Canada, Nepal, and the UK. Researchers from both studies found that breastfeeding lowers the likelihood that children aged seven or younger will contract asthma.
While first and foremost “fed is best,” the studies find that “any breastfeeding” protects kids from developing the inflamed airways that are a hallmark of this dreaded disease.
The analyses are important because more than 8% of all US children suffer from asthma. The most common chronic illness of childhood, asthma can trigger wheezing, breathlessness, coughing, chest tightness, school absences, hospitalizations, and in rare instances, death.
Because children who develop asthmatic symptoms do so before the age of six, researchers at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Vanderbilt University, Washington University, and Rutgers University evaluated early life actions that could prevent or modify the severity of the disease. What they found was that an infant’s diet may help strengthen developing immune and pulmonary systems. Because human milk contains maternal microbiota, nutrients, hormones, and growth factors that together influence lung and immune system development, breastfeeding can impact whether or not a child develops asthma.
Of course, exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke, toxic emissions from natural gas fracking, and air pollution from cars, factories, and coal-fired power plants can trigger asthma too. Millions of people in the US, including nearly 37 million children, live in areas where smog makes the air unhealthy to breathe, reports the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health.
While minimizing air pollution from all sources is key to reducing the onset of asthma, the research showed that “the duration of any breastfeeding had a protective linear trend.” They also found that the longer breastfeeding went on, the more protected the child was.
Similarly, a research consortium made up of pediatricians and respiratory specialists from Nepal, Canada, and the UK conducted a “meta-analysis” of 42 different studies that examined the connection between breastfeeding and its potential connection to asthma. Their analysis found that children who were only breastfed in their early months had a 19% lower risk of contracting asthma compared to those who breastfed less.
While WHO guidelines recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months, the research shows that “even babies who do not meet the six months of exclusive breastfeeding guidelines may still receive some protection against asthma development with partial or intermittent breastfeeding.”
While breastfeeding is not always an option, doctors recommend other ways to help prevent asthma, “including minimizing the use of antibiotics and taking steps to avoid viral infections such as keeping your newborn away from sick people and making sure to wash your hands often. Overuse of antibiotics can alter the gut microbiome and set the stage for asthma.”
These important findings can help moms navigate how environmental health affects their babies and how they can help to prevent asthma.
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