Asthma is a chronic disease of the lung that has been increasing at an alarming rate in industrialized countries around the world over the last few decades. Although considerable progress has been made in our understanding of the underlying pathogenesis of the disease, the exact causes of the increasing prevalence are unknown. Studies suggest that most asthma develops in early childhood and that environmental factors present early in life may be crucial in the development of disease. One potential explanation for the recent epidemic referred to as the "hygiene hypothesis" postulates that factors that have resulted in a reduction in exposure to microbial products and/or infections in the western world may be contributing to this rise in disease prevalence. As early life influences are known to play an important role in establishment of asthma, studies have focused on the interface between mother and child that occurs during gestation and through breastfeeding. In this regard, the body of evidence regarding the relationship between breastfeeding and asthma indicates benefit but with the potential for risk. While providing population-level protection from infections and atopy in infancy and early childhood, breastfeeding might also pose an increased risk of atopic asthma among children with asthmatic mothers. In order to put this controversy in context, we discuss our current understanding of asthma pathogenesis, current theories on the factors driving the rising prevalence of asthma, and then discuss the potential influence of breastfeeding on asthma pathogenesis.