Can Breastfeeding An Infant Help Protect Him From Developing IBD?

Could Breastfeeding Be Best For Children Who Have A Family History Of IBD?

Mother breastfeeding baby in living room
Nursing an infant gives important benefits, including a reduced risk of inflammatory bowel disease. Image © KidStock / Getty Images

Because the inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) puzzle has a genetic piece, parents who have IBD often wonder if there's anything they can do to reduce the risk of their children developing IBD. Scientists don't know exactly what causes IBD, but it does appear to run in families. Over one hundred genes that are connected to IBD have been discovered. However, it's also true that most people diagnosed with IBD don't have a family member with the disease.

Not much is known about how to prevent IBD in children who may be at high risk, but breastfeeding has been researched in a few studies.   

It is now known that breastfeeding can help protect an infant against many conditions, including infection, diarrhea, SIDS and juvenile diabetes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed for the first year of life. There is evidence that breastfeeding may also help protect against a baby developing IBD.

The Evidence For Breastfeeding

Several studies show that people with IBD—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—were more likely to not have been breastfed as infants. The authors of one analysis of several studies on breastfeeding and IBD concluded that there is a protective effect in breastfeeding. They go on to say that this effect may actually be underestimated in the studies available. They cite inconsistencies inherit in many of the published reports and call for research that studies breastfeeding in families that already have a history of IBD.

A study of 300 infants in Denmark showed that breastfeed babies developed certain types of healthy bacteria in their digestive tract. These bacteria included lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, Enterobacteriaceae, and several species of Clostridium and Bacteroides. The non-breastfed babies in the study did not have the same levels of these types of bacteria.

 A healthy amount of beneficial bacteria in the intestine is helpful to the body's immune system in fending off many different diseases. This is one reason that breastfeeding is considered so important to infants: a healthy gut can mean less risk of certain diseases as a child grows.

One Study With Questionable Results

There was one study that showed that breastfeeding was associated with an increased risk of Crohn’s disease—a finding which conflicts with the other evidence that breastfeeding protects against IBD. When one study shows a different result than all the other evidence available, the results of that study are called into question. The authors were puzzled and speculate that their results could be because of the mother's exposure to environmental pollution which then enters into her breastmilk. Another possibility is that the study participants were already at a high risk of IBD because of their family history.

Unfortunately, some people cite this one study as valid evidence not to breastfeed, even though the authors state that their results are questionable. In fact, the authors conclude that their study should not be used as a reason to deter breastfeeding and that the benefits of breastfeeding on short- and- long-term health are substantial.

This study illustrates perfectly how decisions about care can't be based on one piece of research, especially when that one study says the opposite of all other studies.   

A Word From Verywell

In the vast majority of cases, breast milk is going to be the best nutrition for an infant. This is why it's vital to consult a specialist, like a lactation consultant, when making decisions about breastfeeding. There are times, especially with IBD, that mothers are unable to nurse because of medications, but this is not common. Not all IBD medications are incompatible with breastfeeding. Women with IBD will want to talk with healthcare providers, before becoming pregnant, about the best way to feed their infant, to ensure the best possible start in life for baby.

 

Sources:

Barclay AR, Russell RK, Wilson ML, et al. "Systematic review: the role of breastfeeding in the development of pediatric inflammatory bowel disease." J Pediatr. 2009 Sep;155:421-426. 

Baron S, Turck D, Leplat C, et al “Environmental risk factors in paediatric inflammatory bowel diseases: a population based case control study.Gut. 2005 Mar 54:357-363. 

Bergström A1, Skov TH, Bahl MI, et al. "Establishment of intestinal microbiota during early life: a longitudinal, explorative study of a large cohort of Danish infants." Appl Environ Microbiol. 2014 May;80:2889-28900. 

Corrao G, Tragnone A, Caprilli R, et al. “Risk of inflammatory bowel disease attributable to smoking, oral contraception and breastfeeding in Italy: a nationwide case-control study. Cooperative Investigators of the Italian Group for the Study of the Colon and the Rectum (GISC).Int J Epidemiol. 1998 Jun 27:397-404.

Klement E, Cohen RV, Boxman J, Joseph A, Reif S. “Breastfeeding and risk of inflammatory bowel disease: a systematic review with meta-analysis.Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Nov 80:1342-1352.

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