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Giving Cow’s Milk Early Has Benefits

June 26, 2010

Giving cow’s milk to babies within the first few weeks of life may protect a child from developing allergies to the milk protein later in life, new research suggests.

Cow’s milk protein allergy is the most common and most dangerous among dairy allergies. Adverse reactions can include rash, respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, and even shock or death.

The findings that cow’s milk might boost tolerance later in life came as a surprise to Dr. Yitzhak Katz of Tel Aviv University in Israel. Katz, lead researcher on the survey, and his colleagues set out to improve current estimates of the number of children with the allergy, and to determine how often it is accompanied by an allergy to soy.

“We weren’t even looking for a risk factor,” Katz told Reuters Health.

The team studied 13,000 infants and found that only a half percent — 66 infants — tested positive for the allergy. The results were far less than what the team expected based on previous population estimates of 1 to 3 percent.

The research led the team to also conclude there is no link between cow’s milk and soy allergies, despite some previous estimates that 1 in 3 children with one allergy, also suffered from the other.

“Soy is a reasonable feeding alternative for children with cow”Ëœs milk allergy,” Katz noted.

What surprised the colleagues even more, was finding that infants who were first fed cow’s milk at the age of 15 days or more had 19 times the risk of developing cow’s milk allergy relative to those exposed during the first two weeks of life.

Dr. Kari Nadeau of Stanford University in California, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters that some pediatricians discourage the introduction of cow’s milk until a certain age because of the sugar content and the difficulties that some infants have digesting it.

But now, it seems there might also be benefits to a very early start. “It’s nice to know that if you do give small amounts of cow’s milk to children at an early age”¦ it could help prevent their immune system from later viewing this milk protein as a foreign substance and reacting unnaturally to it,” Nadeau said.

Nadeau cautioned, however, that early feeding of cow’s milk is no guarantee that a child will not get the allergy. “At any point in time, if a child starts developing a rash or vomiting to a food,” she said, “they should always get checked out by an allergist.”

Katz added that the findings should not cause women to abandon breastfeeding. Rather, he recommends simply complementing it with cow’s milk early on.

The study is published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

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