We hear all sorts of claims and horror stories about formula milk; here we separate myth from fact over claims it can trigger eczema in babies.
Formula is a divisive subject; damned if you do, damned if you don’t, most mothers are acutely aware of both the benefits and drawbacks of either feeding choice, and should be supported to make the right informed decisions for their own families. But while there’s good evidence to suggest that breastfeeding bestows higher IQ, good gut health, and protection against cardiovascular diseases in later life, is there any evidence to say that feeding them formula is going to cause eczema?
Well, the jury is out on the connection between formula and eczema; the research is inclusive, and if there is any difference in the numbers of babies developing eczema after breastfeeding or after bottle feeding, the figures are small.
Reading the data
The lack of clear evidence one way or another is partly because people parent in vastly different ways; some mix and match formula and breastmilk, some are totally exclusive with their choices; some introduce food at six months, others before or after. Some breastfed babies are affected by what their mother is eating; others not. Studies looking at breastfeeding also have to take into consideration that in most Western societies, the demographic of those who breastfeed is different to those who exclusively formula-feed. Parents' choices for their little ones are personal, unique and hard to accurately account for in studies.
But the main thing to know is that food - whether cows milk, formula milk or ingredients in mother’s diet - does not itself cause eczema; instead, it may trigger flares in babies who are already vulnerable to developing eczema.
There’s some suggestion that breastfeeding does confer some protection against babies with eczema developing food allergies, but there’s also research that suggests that breastfeeding can make babies vulnerable to whatever allergens are in the food the mother is eating. So if you’re breastfeeding a very sensitive baby who is experiencing symptoms of food intolerance or allergy, you might need to eliminate problematic foods from your own diet, so you can continue to breastfeed to boost your little one’s resilience.
So what might a baby with eczema be reacting to?
If they’re being formula-fed, they may be flaring up in response to ingredients in the formula they’re having, most likely the cows’ milk proteins.
Remember that soy and goats’ milk are both also possibly problematic: soy is included in the list of common allergens and isn’t necessarily a better option than cows’ milk.
Alternative milks such as nut, rice, oat and pea aren’t suitable alternatives to breastmilk or formula either, as they do not include the nutrients, fats and proteins a baby needs to grow.
If you’re formula-feeding a baby who’s intolerant or allergic to cows’ milk, ask your GP or health visitor about hypo-allergenic formulas, which have had their protein hydrolysed to break it down and make it more likely to be tolerated.
If a baby is breastfed and is reacting to something in breastmilk, then it’s worth exploring what that be, without limiting your own nutrition. There’s no list of things you should avoid if you’re breastfeeding, because every baby is different, and it’s really important for you to be getting a well-balanced diet while you’re making milk for your baby, so your own body doesn’t get depleted. But there are certainly some things that are more likely to be causing a problem!
These include: cow’s milk protein (protein, not lactose), soy, wheat, corn, eggs, and peanuts. If you suspect a problem, try eliminating the food for a week, then reintroducing it, but it’s best to work with your doctor or health visitor if you’re going to restrict your diet.
For more information if you’re worried your baby is reacting to something in its milk, see the NHS fact sheet: What should I do if I think my baby is allergic or intolerant to cows' milk?
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If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
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