Last Reviewed: August 2013
Get the Facts
Make An Informed Decision
About ear infections
Babies don’t get to choose whether they are fed breast milk or formula, but you do. And since your choice can affect your child’s healthy development you need to get all the facts.
Ear infections are very painful for children and can affect their long-term hearing. It is estimated that 44% of infants will have one ear infection (acute otitis media) before they are one year old. Almost 70% of children under six years old have had an ear infection.
Research shows if infants are exclusively breastfed, that is, they receive no food or drink other than breast milk, the risk of an ear infection can be 50% less than if they are only fed formula. This protective effect lasts for as long as the mother is breastfeeding.
What causes ear infections?
Ear infections can begin as upper respiratory infections like the common cold. Swelling of mucous membranes (the moist lining in our mouths and nasal passage) and excess secretions (such as found with a stuffy or runny nose) can interfere with the eustachian tube that connects the back of the throat to the middle ear. This can pave the way for germs to spread into the ear, causing a sudden, full-blown infection.
How does breast milk protect children against ear infections?
Breast milk contains natural substances called immunoglobulins, which protect children against common bacteria and viruses that lead to ear infections. Breast milk also contains compounds that make it hard for invading germs to attach onto the cells of the throat.
About the scientific research
What kind of scientific review was this?
This was a systematic review of six studies (five cohort studies and one case-control study) with the number of children evaluated in the studies ranging from 289 to 15,113. The studies reviewed were conducted in developed countries among children with no other medical condition.
In the cohort studies, children were followed from birth to an average of 6 to 24 months. The case-control study examined children between the ages of 3 and 7 years.
The researchers examined the role of breastfeeding in the prevention of acute otitis media. All cohort studies were adjusted for other factors that could have an influence, such as: gender, number of siblings, family day care, nursery day care, number of children in the home, maternal age, parental race or ethnicity, birth order, maternal marital status and parental smoking.
What were the results of the review?
The review determined breastfeeding is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of acute otitis media.