Breastfeeding can protect infants from the risk of asthma due to antibiotic exposure, according to a new study led by Dr. Stuart Turvey, a UBC professor in the department of pediatrics and investigator at BC Children’s Hospital.
The study, published recently in the journal Med, found that children who were not breastfed while taking antibiotics had three times the risk of developing asthma compared to those who were breastfed while taking antibiotics.
Asthma affects around one in seven children around the world and is the leading cause of pediatric emergency room visits and missed school days. It can also lead to lifelong poor lung health.
The community of gut microbes, or microbiota, early in life supports immune development to help prevent asthma, however, antibiotic exposure seems to disrupt this delicate microbial balance.
“Increasingly, we have come to understand the enormous influence infant gut health has on overall health,” says Dr. Turvey. “While strides have been made to reduce unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions, we realize they are still an important treatment for babies when warranted. According to our findings, breastfeeding may be one of the most influential factors in protecting these babies when they require antibiotics.”
Dr. Turvey and his team used data collected from children who participated in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study to examine whether breastfeeding could promote a healthy gut and potentially reduce the risk of asthma due to antibiotic exposure.
The CHILD study is the largest multidisciplinary, longitudinal, population-based birth cohort study in Canada, where investigators have tracked the health, growth and environments of kids from birth into school age, and made important discoveries about how asthma and allergies develop.
“Working with the CHILD study, we had access to the microbiota composition within stool samples from infants as well as the makeup of their mother’s milk,” says Darlene Dai, a PhD candidate in UBC’s Experimental Medicine program and co-author of the study. “We were able to identify which beneficial microbes contributed to protection and pinpoint the components in the milk that nurture these beneficial microbes.”
These components are called human milk oligosaccharides, which make up around 20 per cent of carbohydrates in human breast milk and are mostly indigestible by infants. Instead, their main purpose is to support the colonization of beneficial infant bacteria.
“We realize that breastfeeding is not always an option for infants who have been exposed to antibiotics,” says Dr. Charisse Petersen, research associate in UBC’s department of pediatrics and another co-author of the study. “We are hopeful that supplementation of the beneficial microbes and the necessary prebiotics identified in the study may be able to provide protection. Our findings could greatly improve how we treat and care for infants who need antibiotics and further reduce the burden of asthma both for these children and society.”
A version of this story was originally published by the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute.