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Preventing Food Allergies in Infants

By July 18, 2007

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Whenever you see an article about breastfeeding and infant health in an online magazine or newspaper that allows public comments, there are two good bets:

  1. Those comments will be heated; and
  2. A large percentage of the comments will take some form of "my (own/friend's/brother's) child (was breastfed/used formula) for (time period) and has (never/constantly) been ill and/or has an IQ ____ points above the norm. This proves that studies about the health benefits of breastfeeding (are infallible/are bunk)."

The logical fallacy in the second type of statement is assuming that most studies about how breastfeeding affects infant health imply anything about how any one particular child's health or IQ will be impacted by nursing (or not nursing). Most studies involving nursing are population-based studies and analyze trends over large groups. So, for example, in a study like this that shows a positive relationship between percentage of breast feedings and protection from ear infections and diarrhea, it is not necessarily --- or even likely --- true that all children in the study followed the same trends. It doesn't mean that formula-fed children will suffer from ear infections, nor does it mean that breastfed children who get the stomach flu every time it passes through the community can't (and don't) exist. Population-based studies of this sort are merely a good way to ethically look back at how decisions that have already been made in good faith have affected patients, and to help public health groups make sound recommendations.

When groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) talk about preventing food allergies in children, this sort of study is generally --- though not always --- what they're talking about: over large groups, certain behaviors yield less food allergies when you control for other extraneous factors. There are, thus far, no guarantees that any particular parental behavior can absolutely prevent food allergies in any given infant. But there are steps you can take that, over large groups of children, have been shown to lead to less food allergies:

  • Breastfeed exclusively for at least four to six months, if possible. Breastfeeding isn't possible, desirable, or workable in some circumstances. In these cases, doctors will likely recommend or prescribe hydrolysate formulas --- formulas that have been broken down into more easily digested proteins --- for high-risk infants. (Infants at high risk of food allergies include those with parents or siblings with food allergies or other allergic disorders, like eczema.)
  • Wait until six months to introduce solid foods.
  • Avoid feeding children the most common food allergens until their digestive systems have had a chance to fully develop. AAP recommendations are that dairy be introduced after twelve months, eggs after twenty-four months, and peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish be delayed until three years.
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