Breastfeeding Protects At-Risk Babies from Asthma… But There’s a Catch

breastfeeding protects against asthma in infants or does it

A new Swiss study found that babies genetically at risk from asthma benefited from being breastfed. The catch is that once they were weaned, that protection seemed to wear off.

Research into the benefits of breastfeeding is churning out all the time — effectively showing just what babies may be missing if they are not breastfed.

We already knew that breastfeeding lowers the lifetime risk of respiratory infections and other respiratory conditions, like asthma, in infants. We know that these benefits, like others, increase with exclusivity and duration of breastfeeding at least through the first birthday. But research is still lacking in the specifics of how this happens and what effects that variables, like genetic susceptibility, may have on breastfeeding’s benefits.

A new study from Switzerland, presented recently at the 2016 European Respiratory Society International Congress in London, followed breastfed babies genetically at risk of asthma for 1 year and found that — at least while they were breastfed — breastfeeding appeared to be protective against respiratory symptoms. Breastfed infants had a 27% decreased risk of developing respiratory symptoms.

However, once the asthma-prone babies weaned, it appeared that breastfeeding’s protection against asthma did not continue.

Even though it’s a bit of letdown that this study did not find that breastfeeding’s benefit of protecting against asthma to continue in genetically predisposed babies, there are some sparks of hope. For one, the genes studied are those most strongly associated with asthma, so perhaps there’s some wiggle room in infants without just a high genetic risk?

For another, I also have to wonder about the potential for breastfeeding’s benefits to increase when breastfeeding continues well past one year. Extended breastfeeding is just so poorly studied that we just don’t know — we can only assume that the benefits we know from breastfeeding in the first year continue on as long until child-led weaning. Often, breastfeeding’s benefits increase the longer babies breastfeed through the first year, so perhaps breastfeeding longer than 1 year could offer increased protection to these asthma-prone babies.

Still, even if the benefit asthma protection to genetically susceptible babies is shown consistently in follow-up studies to be only for the duration of breastfeeding, that is still a benefit — reduced risk of any respiratory symptoms in infants also cuts the risk of complications in infants that otherwise would not have that lowered risk. It’s important to remember that no benefit is too small!

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