Breastfeeding helps protect babies against the most common respiratory illness affecting children, researchers in Limerick have found.
Even partial breastfeeding in the first months of life can reduce the severity and rate of hospitalisation associated with RSV attacks, according to their study.
RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) is the main cause of lower lung infections among children worldwide. Children’s hospitals in the State were overwhelmed by waves of RSV infection earlier this winter, and last winter, requiring a number of very sick children to be airlifted to Sweden for emergency ventilation.
Researchers at the University of Limerick and University of Limerick Maternity Hospital reviewed published studies into the beneficial effects of breastfeeding on RSV-type lower respiratory infections, which have been known for almost 20 years.
Their study was given added impetus by the unprecedented wave of RSV infections that swept the world in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
They found that adhering to recommended breastfeeding practices was associated with less severe RSV-type lower respiratory infections and lower hospitalisations and lengths of hospital stay. Breastfed babies under 12 months were also less likely to need respiratory support or supplemental oxygen in intensive care units.
While exclusive breastfeeding offers “better protection”, partial breastfeeding can also reduce the impact of RSV infections among children, according to the study, published in BMJ Global journal.
The World Health Organisation recommends that breastfeeding be started within the first hour of birth and continued exclusively for the first six months. Thereafter, solids can be introduced while continuing breastfeeding for up to two years “and beyond”.
There is no vaccine available against RSV although several products are in development. Almost 300 children were hospitalised with RSV in one week in December, but the most recent figures for last week show this figure has declined to 32.
A child hospitalised with an RSV-associated respiratory infection is more than twice as likely to develop conditions such as asthma in the long term.
Irish breastfeeding rates are low by international standards; starting at 62 per cent initially in hospital, under 50 per cent at discharge and 15 per cent after six months.