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Does Feeding Baby Gluten Early On Cut Celiac Risk?

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Experts know that a baby develops what they call oral tolerance to an antigen (a substance that produces protective antibodies) early in life. Celiac disease ''can be viewed as a failure to develop oral tolerance to gluten, or a later loss of this tolerance," Ivarsson wrote in her report.

In her study, babies born in the later group, who were introduced to gluten-containing foods at 4 months on, were less likely to develop celiac disease.

"We can't prove there is a window of opportunity" for developing tolerance, Ivarsson said, but that is one speculation.

The findings suggest -- but don't prove -- that gradually introducing gluten-containing foods in small amounts from 4 months of age, ideally while breast-feeding is ongoing, may protect against celiac disease.

Why should breast-feeding go along with it? "Breast milk has been shown to promote healthy bacteria in the gut," Ivarsson said.

If mothers can breast-feed, they should, she added. However, genetic susceptibility also plays a role, she said, so a child could still get celiac disease despite following the feeding recommendations.

If a child does show symptoms, get early treatment, she said. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea or constipation, abdominal cramping and gas.

"This is actually what we have been advising" for feeding, said Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

"We often get asked by people who are having a baby and there is celiac disease in their family, what could they do to reduce the risk of the baby getting celiac disease?" Green said. "We've actually been advising the parents to breast-feed and introduce a little gluten between 4 and 6 months." The recommendation is based on other research also finding that approach to be effective, he added.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has no official recommendations about reducing celiac disease risk, but its experts say that the risk of celiac disease is reduced 52 percent in infants breast-fed at the time gluten is introduced.

More information

To learn more about celiac disease, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation.

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