Articles published on this blog are my opinion only, and may not necessarily reflect the views of any organisations with which I am associated. Please be aware that articles posted on this blog are not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have a medical problem relating to breastfeeding, please seek further advice from a Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) or trained Breastfeeding Counsellor.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

“But I breastfed my baby and he still got asthma!”

The following article was first published on Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths:

When the breastfeeding facts fail us

One December night last year, I dialled 999. My 9-month-old baby was already struggling to breathe, and it was getting worse: his constant, moany cries became weaker and weaker as he worked himself into a state of utter exhaustion. By the time the paramedics arrived, he was pale, listless and silent. We were blue-lighted into the hospital, and ended up on Children’s Ward, where he spent the following four days on oxygen and steroids. We eventually went home with asthma inhalers. Although the diagnosis wasn’t asthma (doctors don’t tend to diagnose asthma until a child is much older), it was clear he’d been having severe respiratory problems.

Suddenly it all made sense: my third baby had been a fantastic, contented little fellow… right up until he hit around 6 months old, when he became the baby who never slept. We blamed teething, and wondered whether it was something to do with starting solids. Perhaps he was just a grizzly baby? Of course, there was no shortage of those quick to blame breastfeeding, and I felt under immense pressure to ‘just give him a bottle’ to get him to sleep. Stubbornly, I refused to believe that this could be a breastfeeding problem (and was eventually proved right), but sleep-deprived and confused, we never realised that the poor child couldn’t breathe.

I never thought anything like this would happen. After all, isn’t breastfeeding supposed to protect against a multitude of diseases and allergies, including asthma?

Research suggests:

  • Breastfeeding is “associated with a lower incidence of asthma in young children” (Asthma UK 2008)

So where does this leave those of us whose breastfed children are at some point hospitalised because of respiratory illness or go on to develop asthma?

Perched on the hospital bed with my baby, the situation did strike me as being a bit odd: I was breastfeeding my baby, yet here we were – in hospital. I’d breastfed my baby, but he’d become ill anyway. But by that point, breastfeeding had become such an integral part of my identity as a mother, that the idea of ‘giving up’ breastfeeding because it apparently hadn’t protected him from respiratory illness was absurd. If anything, my baby’s illness made me more determined to continue breastfeeding, for longer.

A few months later, I bumped into a mother with a baby about the same age as my third child. It turned out that both babies had been hospitalised with respiratory problems at about the same time. The mother explained that her older child had asthma and had been formula fed. When her second baby came along, she’d made a real effort to breastfeed because she’d heard it would protect against asthma. And then that baby too ended up in hospital with respiratory problems. So she’d decided it was pointless continuing to breastfeed, and switched to formula.

So why would two breastfeeding mothers react in such different ways?

Part of the problem is that mothers aren’t always given all the facts:

Yes, research suggests:

  • Breastfeeding is “associated with a lower incidence of asthma in young children” (Asthma UK 2008)
Which is usually as much as a mother will learn about breastfeeding and asthma.

But there’s more to it than that! Research also suggests:

  • Breastfeeding is associated with “lower instances of persistent wheezing and coughing” (Asthma UK 2008).
  • Asthma and wheeze are “resolved significantly earlier in breastfed children than those who were not breastfed” (Asthma UK 2008)

 A bigger part of the problem is that breastfeeding facts always assume “breast is best”: in other words, breast is special, extraordinary, superlative. If breastmilk is “best”, its nutrients, antibodies and other constituents become above and beyond requirement. If breastmilk is “best”, the protection from disease it offers is a nice bonus, but not really necessary. And imagine the disillusionment when your baby gets sick despite being breastfed, especially if you’ve made a special effort to do so! In reality though, breastfeeding is just a normal, biological function.

If breastmilk is normal, it becomes necessary, therefore NOT breastfeeding carries a risk, so the question becomes:
“what is the impact of depriving a child of [breastmilk]?” (Thomas 2010a)

If the above research findings on Asthma UK are presented from the perspective that breastfeeding is normal, the same research suggests:

  • NOT breastfeeding is associated with a higher incidence of asthma in young children.
  • NOT breastfeeding is associated with higher instances of persistent wheezing and coughing.
  • Asthma and wheeze take significantly longer to resolve in children who were NOT breastfed than those who were.
 NB: NOT breastfeeding includes not only artificial milks, but also the introduction of solid foods prior to 6 months of age.

Next time you read a statement about the benefits of breastfeeding, why not try changing it around so it becomes a statement about the risks of NOT breastfeeding?

MYTH: If I breastfeed my baby, he won’t develop asthma.

FACT: Evidence suggests that babies who are NOT breastfed are at HIGHER risk of developing asthma. However, if my breastfed baby develops asthma, he is accounted for in the statistics too: he simply belongs in the smaller group of children who are breastfed and do develop asthma.

So, if your baby does have respiratory problems or develops asthma, is there any point in continuing to breastfeed? Absolutely! When your baby is sick, this is when your baby most needs you to breastfeed him. Breastfeeding still makes sense because:

  • NOT breastfeeding could increase the number of times your child experiences breathing difficulties.
  • NOT breastfeeding means any respiratory problems could take longer to resolve.
  • Your breastmilk contains antibodies, anti-inflammatory components and other constituents that help your baby to fight respiratory illness (and other illnesses besides). NOT breastfeeding would deprive him of these.
  • “Sick babies are more likely to [breastfeed] than to take anything else by mouth, so [breastfeeding] is important to keep baby hydrated.” (Bonyata 2002)
  • “Sick babies need more comforting. What better way to do this than at the breast?” (Bonyata 2002) Comfort sucking (or non-nutritive sucking) at the breast is of huge neurological, psychological and physical importance to a baby (Thomas 2010b), particularly when that baby is sick.
  • This issue is just one tiny part of the greater breastfeeding picture: there are so many other reasons to carry on breastfeeding!


  1. Wonderful blog. My sentiments exactly but expressed more eloquently. More please!

    Becky C

  2. Thank you, Becky! We've spent the past few weeks battling chicken pox in my house, but now we're all better again, I've a few more topics lined up.


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