Children who were breastfed for three months were less likely to have eczema.
Children, who were exclusively breastfed for the first three months of their life may have a lower risk of developing eczema.
According to a new report published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, exclusively breastfeeding decreased the odds that a child had eczema by the time they were 6 years old compared to children who were not breastfed or were breastfed for less than three months.
“The evidence that being exclusively breastfed protects children from developing eczema later in life remains mixed,” says Katherine M. Balas, a clinical research assistant at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC, and the study’s lead author. “Our research team is trying to help fill that data gap.”
Balas and her team looked at data from a federal feeding study conducted from 2005 to 2007, as well as a follow-up study from 2012. The feeding study tracked the diets of about 2,000 pregnant women from their third trimester and looked at feeding practices during the children’s first year of life. Researchers then followed up when 1,520 of the children were 6 years old.
Overall, at some point during the study, just over 20 percent of the children were diagnosed with eczema, which is an inflammatory disease that causes extremely itchy, cracked skin. Among children with a previous diagnosis, 58.6 percent had eczema at age 6. They found that kids with a family history of food allergies and those with a higher socioeconomic status had higher odds of having eczema.
“While exclusive breastfeeding may not prevent kids from getting eczema, it may protect them from experiencing extended flare-ups,” Balas said in a statement.
Dr. Karen A. Robbins, an allergist at Children’s National Health System and co-author of the research, told Healthline that parents should be aware that there are many factors related to eczema development and duration, and that breastfeeding exclusivity may be one protective factor that reduces the duration of eczema symptoms.
“We are not using the results of this study to change guidelines about breastfeeding or eczema management,” Robbins added.
“At this time we don’t definitively know that it is breastfeeding that is related to lower eczema rates,” she said. The data suggests that it is likely there is an association between the two, but they need more information about what drives this relationship, such as maternal diet during breastfeeding.
Stacey Galowitz, DO, a board-certified allergist at ENT and Allergy Associates of Somerset, New Jersey, said that while new evidence suggests that breastfeeding in early life can lower a child’s odds of developing eczema later in life or reduce the persistence of early childhood eczema, women should not feel undue pressure to breastfeed if it is not right for them and their baby.
The “effects should not be exaggerated and mothers should not be admonished if they choose not to breastfeed,” she told Healthline.
Studies dating back to the 1930s have suggested that breastfeeding could be protective against childhood eczema, she noted. Larger, more recent studies (with better controls for confounding factors) have tended to find no evidence that a protective effect exists, though many haven’t provided the long-term follow up that the newest research adds.
“This study simply adds to the body of literature, but does not give any conclusive cause and effect data,” she explained. Galowitz noted that the study in focus does not mention external factors that could influence the lowered risk for eczema, such as frequency of application of moisturizers, or a child’s general atopic risk factors.
Many factors have been implicated in the development of eczema, including having a family history of allergies, when solid foods were introduced, antibiotic exposures, hygiene levels, and tobacco use during pregnancy, to name a few, Galowitz said.
While a particular food or diet has not been shown to prevent eczema, healthy eating during pregnancy may reduce the risk, too. Some studies contend that probiotic consumption during pregnancy can lower the risk for a child to develop eczema. One study even suggested having a dog in the home could reduce risk. Applying a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer to high-risk newborns also may reduce the risk of developing eczema, Galowitz added.
The biological mechanism that links early breastfeeding to reduced eczema risk is unclear, Galowitz explained.
“This could be related to the level of care these parents are giving to the skin regarding moisturization, or the earlier introduction of possible allergens to the child’s immune system via breast milk. These proteins combine with maternal antibodies and may be transferred and taken up by the infants developing immune system, triggering the production of cells that are protective and suppress further allergic pathways,” she said.
“Literature has shown that there is not clear lowering of risk to allergies in general in breastfed babies, so there is likely secondary factors in play here, not simply the breast milk itself,” Galowitz added.
Galowitz said there is a lot of research trying to find what causes eczema, as more children today have it.
“To date, no one thing guarantees your child won’t develop eczema. This study simply adds to the body of literature in support of breastfeeding, at least in early development,” she noted.