— MOTHER'S milk is undeniably the most nutritious food for babies, but can they have too much of a good thing? While exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of a child's life is thought to help prevent allergies, it is not clear whether further breastfeeding is beneficial in this way.
Twenty years ago researchers at the Helsinki Skin and Allergy Hospital in Finland asked 200 mothers of newborns to maintain exclusive breastfeeding for as long as possible. The children were assessed for allergies at ages 5, 11 and 20.
Exclusive breastfeeding for nine months or more actually appeared to increase the chances of a baby developing allergic conditions such as eczema and food hypersensitivity. At age 5, 56 per cent of children with a family history of allergy who had been breastfed for nine months or more had allergic symptoms, compared with 20 per cent of those who had been breastfed for between two and six months.
The researchers noticed that children who developed allergies after prolonged exclusive breastfeeding were most likely to do so during the first years of life, suggesting that environmental factors such as pollen exposure, diet and disease are the more important factors in the onset of allergies in later childhood and early adulthood.
"A beautiful hypothesis is that there is a time window when the immune system needs to be exposed to external antigens for it to develop properly," says team member Maria Pesonen, although more research is needed to be sure.