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Infant Advantages of Breastfeeding

Respiratory Illness
Breastfeeding helps protect against serious lower respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, as well as upper respiratory infections, including ear infections. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)-the most common cause of serious respiratory illness in infants and young children-is responsible for ninety thousand infant hospitalizations and about forty-five hundred deaths each year in the United States. Breastfed infants have fewer RSV infections, and when they do get sick with RSV, they have less severe cases and fewer hospitalizations.

Ear infections are the most common childhood illness, ac-counting for nearly thirty million pediatric office visits each year. Nearly half of all infants get at least one ear infection in their first year of life, and close to 20 percent of babies suffer from recurrent ear infections (three or more bouts in six months). Breastfed infants, especially those who nurse exclusively for four to six months, experience only half as many ear infections as formula-fed infants.

Other Illnesses. Recent studies suggest that breastfeeding provides substantial protection against urinary tract infections in infancy and early childhood. Breastfed infants have a lower risk of blood-borne infections and spinal meningitis compared to bottle-fed babies. Breastfed infants also appear to be protected from the most severe form of infant botulism, a rare illness that results when Clostridia botulinum spores, present on agricultural products, including honey, are consumed by infants. (Honey should not be fed to infants under one year.)

Breastfeeding protects against allergies in infancy and later childhood.
A number of studies link breastfeeding with a lower incidence of food allergies, asthma, eczema, hayfever, and other allergic disease. As many as 15 percent of Americans and Europeans display one or more allergy symptoms in the first two decades of life. Infants who have a parent or sibling with known allergic disease are at greatest risk. Exclusive breastfeeding of such infants, especially when the mother eliminates certain allergenic foods from her diet during lactation (See "Common Problems Encountered by Breastfeeding Women"), has been shown to have a protective effect against the baby developing allergic symptoms.

A recent long-term, follow-up study from infancy until early adulthood examined the link between infant-feeding method and subsequent allergic disease (food allergy, respiratory allergy, asthma, and eczema). The results showed that breastfeeding (preferably for six months or longer) provided significant protection from allergic disease throughout childhood and adolescence. Another study that followed more than four hundred children who had a close relative with allergic disease found that wheezing occurred twice as frequently in the first year of life in youngsters who were never breastfed compared to those who had received some breast milk.

Breastfed infants have a lower risk of chronic immune system disorders, such as juvenile-onset diabetes mellitus, childhood cancers (especially lymphoma), and Crohn's disease.
Several studies comparing possible causative factors associated with childhood cancers have found the duration of breastfeeding to have been significantly greater among healthy children than children with cancer. The findings are most prominent for cases of childhood lymphoma.

Other studies suggest that breastfeeding may help protect against the development of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). The destruction of the insulin-secreting cells of the pancreas in individuals with IDDM is known to be an autoimmune process. Cow's milk has been implicated as a possible trigger of this autoimmune reaction in genetically susceptible persons. Some studies have shown a reduced risk of diabetes in breastfed children, especially those with a longer duration of exclusive breastfeeding.

Evidence is also accumulating to suggest that breastfeeding provides significant protection against inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis). These disorders can cause chronic diarrhea, fever, poor growth, and other symptoms.

From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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