Breastfeeding is seen as beneficial to babies and mothers alike; research has suggested that breastfed babies have a reduced risk of developing asthma and type 1 diabetes, while mothers who breastfeed may reduce their risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and high blood pressure.¹ The nutrition provided to an infant can benefit that child for a long time.
August is National Breastfeeding Month, a time to provide awareness and promote education on the benefits of breastfeeding. One of the more important benefits of breastfeeding that new or expectant mothers should be aware of is its impact on reducing childhood infections. In addition to breastfeeding, supplementary and complementary additions can also reduce infection risk. What can breastfeeding do for childhood infection risk, and how can supplementing help?
Breastfeeding and Infection
Multiple studies have examined the potential link between breastfeeding and the risk of different infections at a young age. In a 2014 study published in Pediatrics, researchers examined whether breastfeeding affected infection risk in children at 6 years old.² While the investigators did not find a strong link between breastfeeding and colds or upper respiratory infections, they did find a possible link to ear, throat, and sinus infections. Duration of breastfeeding played a role: Children who breastfed for 9 or more months were less likely to have had a past-year ear, throat, or sinus infection compared to children who only breastfed for 0 to 3 months.
A 2019 study in BMC Pediatrics found that breastfeeding may correlate with reduced risk of respiratory infection with fever and infective gastroenteritis in infants aged 3 to 6 months.³ In infants aged 6 to 18 months, breastfeeding within a 3 month period correlated with lower odds of infective gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, ear infection, tracheitis, and laryngitis.
Supplementing Breastfeeding and Infection
In addition to the nutrients provided by breastfeeding, infants younger than 12 months old need 400 IU of vitamin D daily.⁴
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked at the benefits of supplementing breastfeeding with vitamin D to prevent infection and found a positive synergy between the two.⁵ In addition to breastfeeding helping reduce the risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections, they found that healthy vitamin D intake potentially reduced the risk of respiratory infections and tuberculosis infections in children. The researchers did, however, acknowledge that further research is needed into vitamin D as a protective factor against these infections.
1. Breastfeeding benefits both baby and mom | DNPAO. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/features/breastfeeding-benefits/. Reviewed July 27, 2021. Accessed August 23, 2022.
2. Li R, Dee D, Li CM, Hoffman HJ, Grummer-Strawn LM. Breastfeeding and risk of infections at 6 years. Pediatrics. 2014 Sep;134 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S13-20. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-0646D. PMID: 25183750; PMCID: PMC4258846.
3. Frank, NM, Lynch, KF, Uusitalo, U. et al. The relationship between breastfeeding and reported respiratory and gastrointestinal infection rates in young children. BMC Pediatr. 19, 339 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12887-019-1693-2
4. Vitamin D | Nutrition. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/InfantandToddlerNutrition/vitamins-minerals/vitamin-d.html. Reviewed July 22, 2021. Accessed August 26, 2022.
5. Domenici R, Vierucci F. Exclusive breastfeeding and vitamin D supplementation: A positive synergistic effect on prevention of childhood infections? Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Mar 3;19(5):2973. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19052973. PMID: 35270666; PMCID: PMC8910000.