Many parents avoid feeding their infants cow’s milk products because they believe early exposure to milk protein makes a milk allergy more likely. And many doctors recommend that concerned moms feed breast milk exclusively for as long as they can, introducing formula only after a long stretch of exclusive breastfeeding.
But it seems we may have the timing all wrong. A new study says that when it comes to allergies, the earlier babies are introduced to formula, the better.
The research, conducted at Tel Aviv University, was the largest and longest study on the relationship between cow’s milk formula and cow’s milk allergy. Over 13,000 babies were involved. Results suggest that introducing cows’ milk formula within the first fourteen days of life has a protective effect against milk protein allergy: babies who were given formula soon after birth were 19 times less likely to have a cow’s milk allergy than those who got their first taste of cow’s milk formula later on.
“Women who regularly (daily) introduced their babies to cow milk protein early, before 15 days of life, almost completely eliminated the incidence of allergy to cow milk protein in their babies,” said Prof. Yitzhak Katz of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Pediatrics, the leading author of the study.
These findings are in line with some of the latest research about other types of allergies. It appears that the whole idea of avoiding allergens in early life is being called into question, whether the allergen is peanuts or milk. Some new studies indicate that an early exposure may actually be protective, perhaps working like a vaccination to keep the body from overreacting to the protein later on.
Though these findings are exciting, they do have some troubling implications, especially when it comes to breastfeeding. Because breast milk supply is built according to the nursing baby’s demand, exclusive breastfeeding is generally recommended in the early weeks if possible. Early introduction of formula can sometimes mess with a mother’s breast milk supply. Pumping might help with this, but pumping isn’t necessarily something many women are interested in doing. There’s also the question of so called “nipple confusion”: some babies take to the faster flow of a bottle nipple and aren’t so into breastfeeding after that. There are some bottles designed for easy back and forth between breast and bottle feeding. Not all babies have an issue with nipple confusion, but when it happens, it can be a disaster for breastfeeding. We don’t know yet how or if the results of this study will have any effect on feeding recommendations for new moms. But if early formula feeds are recommended, I hope they’ll be accompanied by information about this might affect breastfeeding, and how to support it simultaneously.