The research found that giving the baby solid food beside breast feeding helps it develop a better, stronger immune system to fight food allergies.
Dr Kate Grimshaw, dietician and senior research fellow at the University of Southampton who led the research, said: “Introducing solid foods alongside breastfeeding can benefit the immune system. It appears the immune system is educated when there is an overlap of solids and breast milk because the milk promotes tolerogenic mechanisms against the solids.
“Additionally, our findings suggest 17 weeks is a crucial time point, with solid food introduction before this time appearing to promote allergic disease whereas solid food introduction after that time point seems to promote tolerance.”
Infants are largely intolerant of solid food before four to six months of age. This is thought to be due to the infant gut being relatively immature, which may cause symptoms of food allergy.
The study, funded by the UK Food Standards Agency and published in Paediatrics, recruited 1140 infants at birth from the Hampshire area in a study known as PIFA (Prevalence of Infant Food Allergy Study) part of the UK arm of the EuroPrevall Birth Cohort study. 41 of these children went onto to develop a food allergy by the time they were two years of age. The diet of these infants was compared with the diet of 82 infants who did not develop food allergy by the time they were two.
The team found that children who had developed allergies began eating solid food earlier than children with no allergies — roughly, at age 16 weeks or earlier. Children with allergies were also more likely to not be being breastfed when the mother introduced cow’s milk protein, from any source. Women who are not breastfeeding are encouraged to introduce solids after 17 weeks of age, Dr Grimshaw said.
This unique research supports the recommendations of the American Academy of Paediatrics and the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition who urge mothers not to introduce solid foods before four to six months of age. Furthermore the findings also support the American Academy of Paediatrics’ breastfeeding recommendations that breastfeeding should continue while solid foods are introduced into the diet.
Professor Clare Mills, from The University of Manchester who was co-author of the study, said: “We wanted to investigate how infant feeding practices might be related to food allergy early in life. Mothers kept detailed food diaries of how their infants were fed in the first year of life and these were used to compare dietary practices between infants who developed food allergies with those who did not.
“Using this unique dietary data, it was found that infants who were diagnosed with food allergy by the time they were two years of age were introduced to solids earlier (16 weeks of age or before) and were less likely to be receiving breast milk when cows’ milk protein was first introduced into their diet.”
EuroPrevall was funded by the European Union and coordinated by Professor Clare Mills, and the PIFA study was led by Professor Graham Roberts at the University of Southampton.
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