A review of the effects of breastfeeding on respiratory infections, atopy, and childhood asthma

J Asthma. 2004 Sep;41(6):605-21. doi: 10.1081/jas-200026402.


The etiology of childhood asthma is not fully understood. Early exposure to certain respiratory infections may be protective for atopy and/or asthma whereas some infections have been suggested to exert the opposite effects. Wheezing lower respiratory illness (LRI) in the first year of life and atopy are independently associated with increased risk for current asthma in childhood and their effects are mediated via different causal pathways. These risk factors are multiplicative when they operate concommitantly within individual children. Exclusive breastfeeding protects against asthma via effects on both these pathways, as well as through other as yet undefined mechanisms. Furthermore, exclusive breastfeeding may protect against asthma and may reduce the incidence of lower respiratory illness, especially respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). We have previously demonstrated a protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding on asthmatic traits in children. The aim of this review was to clarify this protective association from intermediate associations with respiratory infections, atopy, or through other facets of breastfeeding. The bioactivity of breast milk and subsequent pathways that may act upon the development of asthma in children are explored.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / epidemiology
  • Asthma / prevention & control*
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity, Immediate / epidemiology
  • Hypersensitivity, Immediate / prevention & control*
  • Immunity, Maternally-Acquired / physiology*
  • Incidence
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Primary Prevention / methods
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / epidemiology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / prevention & control*
  • Sensitivity and Specificity