Can Breastfeeding Prevent Celiac Disease?

There’s an increasing amount of controversy about how beneficial breastfeeding really is (less so about colostrum), especially in light of how emotionally and physically taxing it can be for many women. When weighing the pros and cons most people think of things like bonding with their child, baby having better digestion in the short-term and better long-term health outcomes and I.Q. (again there is much debate about this). You might want to add one more consideration to your list, however. Some people think that breastfeeding may help prevent celiac disease.

Celiac disease, which is becoming increasingly common as our food supply and processing practices change for the worse, is an autoimmune disorder in which a person can’t eat gluten (found in wheat, rye and barley) without damaging their small intestine. Symptoms include constipation, bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea and more.

How does breastfeeding come into play?

The theory is that introducing gluten in small amounts to a baby through breastmilk primes a baby’s immune system to tolerate gluten. What does the research say? Unfortunately, while there is no downside to breastfeeding as far as celiac disease is concerned, there isn’t strong enough evidence that there is a link as the benefits aren’t consistently seen across scientific studies.

For example, in one study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2014, 944 at-risk babies were randomly assigned to receive either a small dose of gluten or a placebo daily from age 4 to 6 months. Researchers recorded in detail how these babies were breastfeed and found that no approach to breastfeeding gave them an advantage against celiac disease. Older studies, however, found the opposite to be true. A 2002 study concluded that “the gradual introduction of gluten-containing foods into the diet of infants while they are still being breastfed reduces the risk of celiac disease in early childhood and probably also during the subsequent childhood period.”

Conclusion: the latest research doesn’t show that breastfeeding helps prevent celiac disease. If you suspect your child has celiac disease, speak with your pediatrician to have her tested as soon as possible. Celiac disease is diagnosed through blood tests to determine the presence of antibodies against substances associated with a reaction to gluten. It’s also important to note that if you find that your baby does have a gluten intolerance or has been diagnosed with celiac disease, you must eliminate gluten from your diet if you’re breastfeeding.

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