We’ve all heard the rumours about how eating broccoli or cheese can affect your breastfed baby’s digestion but is there a link with eczema too? We all want to do the very best for our babies, but sometimes it’s hard to tell what that is! This blog looks at whether there’s a link between what a mom eats and her baby’s eczema.
While the short answer is yes, what you eat can affect your baby’s skin, the long answer is a bit more complicated!
And the first thing to be clear about is that the benefits you’re giving your baby by breastfeeding will almost always outweigh any potential negative effects, so it’s important to make a properly informed decision about how to manage your little one’s eczema.
How does what you eat affect your baby?
When mothers make milk for their babies, their bodies make it up from the food they eat. Whatever mom’s diet is, her body will make milk to a formula, so breastmilk will almost always contain enough fat, enough protein, and enough nutrients for a baby to thrive.
However, some of what the mother eats passes directly through her digestive system, into her body, and can get into the milk she then feeds her baby. That means there’s a chance that the baby will be exposed to something that could trigger an eczema flare.
What are the symptoms of food intolerance in babies?
A minority of children with eczema (maybe 2 in 10) turn out to have food allergies or intolerances as well, so not every baby with eczema is going to be affected by anything in their breast milk. And of course many babies with eczema aren’t breastfed, so that affects the figures too. However, for the minority of babies who react to allergens or irritants in their mother’s diet, the symptoms can be pretty vague! They may have dry, itchy skin, colic or just be generally uncomfortable. Sometimes a food will bring the baby out in a rash or hives, or trigger an eczema flare up.
What foods are the most common problems for breastfed babies?
According to breast milk experts La Leche League, the most likely candidates for problematic reactions are:
- Cows’ milk, other dairy products and certain protein foods: soya, egg, pork, fish and shellfish.
- Wheat, corn, nuts and peanuts.
- Oranges and other citrus fruits; seedy fruits such as tomatoes, berries and kiwi fruit.
- Cabbage, onions and spices. Fenugreek is closely related to peanuts.
- Certain additives, artificial colourings, flavourings and preservatives.
Is it worth carrying on breastfeeding?
Breast milk is beneficial in so many ways, it’s impossible to list them all! But as a quick round-up, breastfeeding protects against gastric upsets, viruses, SIDS, and obesity, heart conditions and diabetes in later life. It’s also beneficial for mothers, lowering the risk of osteoporosis, among other things.
Breast milk might also give some protection against developing atopic conditions like eczema, asthma and hayfever, although there is an important genetic factor to consider, too. If a baby's parents have eczema or asthma, their baby may well develop them too, whether or not they’re fully breastfed.
One way in which breastfeeding can help reduce the severity of a baby’s eczema is by regulating its immune system response, which is overactive in eczema.
And another important factor to consider is that formulas based on cows’ milk or soy are more likely to cause problems in sensitive babies than breast milk.
But of course, while breast milk doesn’t cause eczema, it must be acknowledged that for a minority of babies, what their mom eats can affect the severity or frequency of their eczema flares.
How can I tell what the problem is?
The truth is that colic or distress can be down to any number of things, from hunger to teething. It’s sensible not to assume that a baby being colicky or unsettled is down to what you’ve eaten, and it’s always worth checking every other possibility before putting yourself on a restrictive diet or considering giving up breastfeeding.
In the first instance, get support from an experienced lactation counsellor or doctor, and check against this helpful resource: The Unhappy Breastfed Baby.
If after checking other possibilities you’re still worried that something you’re eating is causing a problem, you can try an elimination diet. This involves eliminating problematic foods (as listed above) for 2-3 weeks entirely, then introducing them back into your diet, one by one, leaving 3 days in between to check for reactions. It’s good to do this under the eye of a lactation consultant, doctor or dietitian.
How can you manage your baby’s eczema while still breastfeeding?
If you’ve consulted a lactation specialist and/or done a thorough elimination diet, and are pretty sure that what you’re eating is affecting your baby, then one way to manage it is to stop eating the problem food until your baby stops feeding. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in the early weeks or months of parenthood, when extra resources for cooking or buying special free-from food are probably running thin.
There’s also evidence that it may not always be wise to avoid a problematic food completely, as that might make the problem worse in the long term. Experts have suggested that avoiding peanuts for sensitive babies under the age of one actually led to more cases of peanut allergy in small children.
But the benefits to yourself and to your baby of continuing breastfeeding might well turn out to be worth it in the end, especially as while the feeding won’t last forever, the benefits might. It’s very important to find good experienced support for yourself, if you’re struggling with your baby’s eczema or with feeding.
Ultimately the most important thing is for both mom and baby to be happy and thriving, in whatever way works best for them.
Recommended products for babies prone to eczema:
Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream
with shea butter and calendula
Bath & Body Oil
with lavender, hemp and olive