by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Here’s a shocking statistic.
Next to the common cold, ear infections are the most commonly diagnosed childhood illness in the United States. More than 3 out of 4 children have had at least one ear infection by the time they are 3 years old. (1)
This high incidence of ear infections in totally unnecessary as the solution to reducing the incidence of ear infections in babies has been known for decades, namely breast-feeding your baby for a minimum of 6 months, and preferably 1 year or longer.
You see, breast-feeding is the natural way to help fight infections in your baby. Researchers have discovered that antibodies passed to the baby by a nursing mother help lower the occurrence of many conditions including ear infections, respiratory infections, allergies and asthma. Breast-feeding also contributes to the infant’s immune system by increasing the barriers to infection and decreasing the growth of bacteria and viruses. As a group, formula-fed babies have more infections and more hospitalizations than do breast-fed babies. (2)
Another benefit to breast-feeding is the way you hold a baby to breast-feed it. Breast-feeding keeps the baby at an angle which helps keep the Eustachian tubes clear and hence, fewer ear infections. In contrast, bottle-fed babies tend to lie flat and that allows “gunk” (to use a fancy medical term) to get in the baby’s Eustachian tubes and run up to the middle ear where it causes infections. (1)
Now researchers have found even more evidence of the efficacy of breast-feeding. They have found that breast-feeding protects children otherwise made susceptible to ear infections by abnormalities in specific human genes.
About 19% of children are prone to chronic and recurrent middle ear infections (Otitis media). Although researchers have long known that genetics plays a part in this increased vulnerability, they never knew the exact mechanism involved.
“We know that the tendency to get this infection runs in families, and so we decided to look for small variations—what we call ‘single-nucleotide polymorphisms,’ or SNPs—in three important genes that produce inflammatory signaling molecules for the immune system,” said Janak Patel, a professor in the infectious disease division of UTMB’s Department of Pediatrics. “Two of them stood out on their own as signals of increased risk.”
The two identified genes generate the immune proteins known as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL-6). SNPs in each individual gene were enough, the researchers found, to create increased risk for childhood ear infections, and simultaneous SNPs in both genes created even more risk. The researchers believe that the particular variations detected cause greater production of inflammatory signaling molecules and reduce immune system effectiveness. But the UTMB scientists found that the effect could be counteracted with a practice long known to increase immune resistance: breast-feeding.
“This is a major finding, that breast-feeding neutralized the effect even in kids who had all the genetic polymorphisms,” Patel said. “Not only that, they were protected from recurrent infections even later in childhood, long after they stopped breast-feeding.” (3)
Therefore, if you want to give your children the best chance at normal hearing, start them off right—breast-feed them. The benefits will last for years.
(3) UTMB Researchers Discover Breast-Feeding Overcomes Genetic Tendency to Ear Infections. University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.