Thorax 56:192-197 doi:10.1136/thorax.56.3.192
  • Original article

Factors influencing the relation of infant feeding to asthma and recurrent wheeze in childhood

  1. A L Wrighta,
  2. C J Holberga,
  3. L M Taussigb,
  4. F D Martineza
  1. aRespiratory Sciences Center, Arizona Health Sciences Center and Department of Pediatrics and Steele Memorial Children's Research Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA, bNational Jewish Medical and Research Center, Denver, Colorado, USA
  1. Dr A L Wright, Respiratory Sciences Center, Arizona Health Sciences Center, 1501 No. Campbell Ave, Tucson, AZ 85724, USAawright{at}
  • Received 22 September 1999
  • Revision requested 25 November 1999
  • Revised 14 October 2000
  • Accepted 27 November 2000


BACKGROUND The relationship between infant feeding and childhood asthma is controversial. This study tested the hypothesis that the relation between breast feeding and childhood asthma is altered by the presence of maternal asthma.

METHODS Healthy non-selected newborn infants (n=1246) were enrolled at birth. Asthma was defined as a physician diagnosis of asthma plus asthma symptoms reported on ⩾2 questionnaires at 6, 9, 11 or 13 years. Recurrent wheeze (⩾4 episodes in the past year) was reported by questionnaire at seven ages in the first 13 years of life. Duration of exclusive breast feeding was based on prospective physician reports or parental questionnaires completed at 18 months. Atopy was assessed by skin test responses at the age of 6 years.

RESULTS The relationship between breast feeding, asthma, and wheeze differed with the presence or absence of maternal asthma and atopy in the child. After adjusting for confounders, children with asthmatic mothers were significantly more likely to have asthma if they had been exclusively breast fed (OR 8.7, 95% CI 3.4 to 22.2). This relationship was only evident for atopic children and persisted after adjusting for confounders. In contrast, the relation between recurrent wheeze and breast feeding was age dependent. In the first 2 years of life exclusive breast feeding was associated with significantly lower rates of recurrent wheeze (OR 0.45, 95% CI 0.2 to 0.9), regardless of the presence or absence of maternal asthma or atopy in the child. Beginning at the age of 6 years, exclusive breast feeding was unrelated to prevalence of recurrent wheeze, except for children with asthmatic mothers in whom it was associated with a higher odds ratio for wheeze (OR 5.7, 95% CI 2.3 to 14.1), especially if the child was atopic.

CONCLUSION The relationship between breast feeding and asthma or recurrent wheeze varies with the age of the child and the presence or absence of maternal asthma and atopy in the child. While associated with protection against recurrent wheeze early in life, breast feeding is associated with an increased risk of asthma and recurrent wheeze beginning at the age of 6 years, but only for atopic children with asthmatic mothers.