One way breastfeeding can boost a baby’s health is by warding off food allergies. Catherine Field, a nutrition professor at the University of Alberta, says there are ways to make a mother’s milk even better.
“We know it’s the perfect food, but it could be made more perfect by some of the things moms eat and do,” said Field. “New studies are suggesting there are foods and nutrients that a nursing mom can eat that build an immune tolerance to even further reduce the chance that her baby will develop an allergy.”
With infants under the age of two particularly vulnerable to developing food allergies, usually to peanuts and tree nuts, eggs, cow’s milk, fish and shellfish, and sesame seeds, Field offers her expert advice on how to boost baby’s immune system.
If you can, breast is best
The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months if possible. This will give baby’s immunity more time to develop, as the milk passes along tiny pieces of protein that help train the infant’s immune system to develop tolerance, as well as mom’s protective immune cells. However, Field admits this can be hard: “It means being tied to the baby, or other family members want to help feed. If moms find it hard to nurse or want help, they can consider using a breast pump and storing the milk so others can help feed and bond with baby.”
Make the most of baby’s first feed
Even if you don’t plan to or are unable to continue breastfeeding, Field advises taking advantage of colostrum, the first milk produced within 24 to 48 hours of giving birth. “Even for women who aren’t going to be able to breastfeed on a regular basis, really try to do so right after birth. It’s different from the milk produced even a few days later because it’s packed with a lot of factors that get the baby’s immune system off to a good start.”
Try not to introduce formula too early
Try to avoid giving babies formula during the first six months, as it alters the development of the immune system, says Field. “It’s been shown that feeding formula too early puts babies at risk of developing allergies.” After six months, a formula is safe to introduce, but Field advises doing it gradually over three to four weeks and watching babies carefully for reactions like rashes, cramps or poor sleep. “If that happens, stop feeding formula for a while and then introduce it again later. As babies get older, they’re able to tolerate more.”
Fill up on fish
Adding salmon, tuna or fish oil to your diet while breastfeeding can boost levels of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA in breast milk, which is thought to help boost immune system development, according to Field’s research. She says just taking one fish oil capsule per day boosts the DHA level in breast milk by three times. Aim for two to three weekly servings of salmon or tuna, or opt for foods like yoghurt, orange juice and eggs enriched with omega-3 fatty acids.