May was Asthma awareness month. It's a chronic disease of the lungs: characterized by repeat episodes of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and nighttime or early morning coughing. In most cases, we don't know what causes asthma and we don't know how to cure it. However, exclusive breastfeeding for three to four months protects against asthma throughout the early years of childhood and cuts the risk of asthma by 37% in infants under three and children ages 7 or over were 17% less likely to have the condition.
Studies suggest the protection is due to breastfeeding's favorable effects on baby's immune system and on the gut. Breast-milk also has special proteins made by mom's immune system that help protect babies from developing allergies. African-American children have higher rates of food allergies, eczema and asthma than both White and Hispanic children.
Because African-Americans are 2 to 3 times more likely to die from asthma than any other racial or ethnic group, breastfeeding is an important intervention. One study found in children who are atopic, exclusive breastfeeding for 3 months or longer was associated with reduced asthma at ages 4, 5, & 6 years (62%, 55% & 59% respectively).
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported 75% of US babies start out being breastfed; just 43% are still breastfeeding at 3 months and only 13% exclusively at 6 months. These rates are even lower in the black community. Breastfeeding is not a guarantee that a child will not develop allergies, eczema, or asthma. But in families with a strong history of these problems, exclusive breastfeeding for 4 to 6 months may help reduce the risk of allergic diseases.