Research conducted by investigators at the Department of Population Medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and collaborators around the world suggests that babies who are breastfed for a sustained period from birth have a lower risk of developing eczema by the age of 16. These findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics in November.
The paper, titled “Effect of an Intervention to Promote Breastfeeding on Asthma, Lung Function and Atopic Eczema at Age 16 Years,” was led by Dr. Carsten Flohr of King’s College London, and the senior author was Dr. Emily Oken of the Institute. The study examined more than 13,000 Belarusian teenagers enrolled at birth in the Promotion of Breastfeeding Intervention Trial (PROBIT) and found a 54% reduction in signs of eczema among teenagers whose mothers had received support to breastfeed exclusively during infancy. This effect is significant, as eczema affects approximately one in 5 children and one in 10 adults in the developed world.
“Longer breastfeeding has been associated with lower rates of infections in infancy and higher IQ in childhood,” said Dr. Oken. “This study adds yet another reason to support women who wish to breastfeed.”
The PROBIT study, the largest cluster-randomized controlled trial ever conducted in the area of human lactation during infancy, recruited a total of 17,046 mothers and their newborn babies between June 1996 and December 1997. Half of the maternity hospitals and pediatric clinics involved in the study provided additional breastfeeding support modeled on the recommendations of the WHO and United Nations Children's Fund’s BFHI, while the other half continued their usual practices.
While the study found that the breastfeeding promotion intervention provided protection against eczema, there was no reduction in risk of asthma, with 1.5% of the intervention group reporting asthma symptoms compared with 1.7% in the control group.