Babies who do not breastfeed are at higher risk for respiratory disorders, including asthma. A new study reveals that breastfeeding during infancy may lower asthma severity well into the childhood years.
Asthma is a serious, chronic condition that causes swelling and narrowing of the airways. The CDC estimates that 6.2 million children suffer from asthma in the United States. For unknown reasons, the prevalence of asthma has been increasing in the U.S. since the 1980s. In fact, this leading chronic condition for children is the top reason for absenteeism in school.
Researchers from the Netherlands utilized data from 960 children aged 4-12 years who regularly use asthma medications. The children were part of a larger ongoing study entitled Pharmacogenetics of Asthma medications in Children: Medication with Anti-inflammatory Effects, or PACMAN.
The researchers determined breastfeeding exposure through a questionnaire given to the parents. Parents answered if the children were ever breastfed, breastfed for less than six months, or breastfed for greater than six months. The severity of asthma was determined based on the number of asthma exacerbations in the last year, as well as poorly controlled asthma symptoms during the last week of the study visit.
The study, published in Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, found that breastfed children had a 45% lower risk of severe asthma attacks later in life compared to asthmatic children who were not breastfed.
Lead author, Dr. Anke Maitland-van der Zee, cautions that while the study shows that breastfeeding provides a protective factor, a causal link between breastfeeding and asthma exacerbations has not been definitively proven.
One reason for the decrease in asthma severity might have to do with the immune system. “Changes in the composition and activity of the gut microbiome in early life can influence the immune system, and these changes might indirectly lead to changes in asthma later in life,” Zee explained.
The study refutes a recent Swiss study about breastfeeding and asthma. The Swiss study concluded that while breastfeeding was protective for babies with a family history of asthma, the protective factors of breastfeeding wore off once the baby was weaned.
While the topic would benefit from additional research, it’s safe to say that breastfeeding is one way to lower your child’s risk or severity of asthma.