Can Breastfeeding Help To Prevent Celiac Disease?

Can breastfeeding help to prevent celiac disease?. Getty Images/KidStock

Question: I've read that breastfeeding babies for at least six months (preferably more) can help to prevent them from developing celiac disease. I've also read that it helps for your baby to be nursing when she first starts eating gluten. Is any of this true?

Answer: Some medical research has indicated that breastfeeding your baby might delay or stop celiac from developing. Unfortunately, the most recent medical research — a particularly comprehensive study — indicates breastfeeding doesn't seem to have that effect.

The study, published in October 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine, included 832 newborns with close relatives who already had been diagnosed with celiac disease. As part of the study, some of the babies started to eat gluten-containing foods at six months, while others waited until they were a year old. All of the children began eating a standard gluten-containing diet when they were a year old.

Meanwhile, their mothers kept track of whether the babies nursed and when they stopped, and how much gluten-containing food they ate.

How Long Did the Babies Breastfeed?

In the group of babies that began eating gluten at six months, 65% breastfed for an average of a little less than six months, and less than one-third were still nursing at the time they began eating gluten foods. In the group that was introduced to gluten foods at 12 months, about 70% breastfed for an average of more than six months, and 11% still were breastfeeding at 12 months, when they started gluten foods.

Sadly, none of this made any difference: the study found similar duration of breastfeeding between children with the genetic predisposition to develop celiac disease who did develop it by age five and those who had genetic predisposition but who didn't develop the condition.

"We did not detect an effect of breastfeeding on the development of celiac disease," the authors concluded.

Another medical study reported in the same issue of the New England Journal looked at whether it would help avert celiac for mothers to be nursing their babies at the time they introduced gluten to them. Again, this didn't seem to matter -- the children developed celiac disease at similar rates, regardless of whether they were breastfeeding when first introduced to gluten-containing foods or not.

Learn more: Study: Waiting To Start Feeding Gluten To Babies Won't Prevent Celiac

So What Actually Did Matter?

In a word, genetics.

Babies who had genes predisposing them to celiac disease — specifically, either HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 — were at risk, with many going on to develop the condition. This matches what other recent research on the development of celiac disease has found.

  • Learn more: What's the Risk That My Baby Will Develop Celiac Disease?

What Should I Do Now?

Although this research indicates that breastfeeding your baby won't affect her risk of celiac disease, there are other good reasons to do it.

In fact, breastfeeding may reduce your baby's chances of other medical conditions, including asthma, ear infections, and type 2 diabetes, and it can help your baby's immune system develop properly.

In addition, breastfeeding has benefits for the mother: it can help you to lose that baby weight, and it might also protect you against type 2 diabetes.

So while it might be discouraging to learn that breastfeeding likely won't reduce your baby's risk of celiac disease (assuming she has one of the main celiac disease genes), it still can help her overall health and lower her risk of other medical conditions.


Lionetti E. et al. Introduction of gluten, HLA status, and the risk of celiac disease in children. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2014 Oct 2;371(14):1295-303.

Vriezinga S.L. et al. Randomized feeding intervention in infants at high risk for celiac disease. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2014 Oct 2;371(14):1304-15

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