Sept. 25, 2008 - There is early evidence that eating fish in infancy may help protect against eczema in early childhood.
Babies in a newly published study whose diets included fish before the age of 9 months were 24% less likely to develop eczema by their first birthdays than babies who did not eat fish.
The infants were enrolled in an ongoing health study in Sweden that is following almost 17,000 children from birth though childhood.
But the impact of early fish consumption on risk was significant, lead author Bernt Alm, MD, PhD, of Sweden's Queen Silvia Children's Hospital, tells WebMD.
"We believe this is a real risk reduction," he says. "We can't be certain of this, but the finding certainly warrants further study."
Fish, Food Allergies, and Eczema
There has been a dramatic rise in the incidence of allergic disease, including eczema, among young children over the last few decades, but the reasons for this remain largely unknown.
While it is clear that genetic predisposition plays a big part in risk, the impact of allergic foods and the timing of food introduction remain less well understood.
" Food allergies contribute to about a third of moderate to severe eczema cases in children," pediatric allergist David Fleischer, MD, of National Jewish Medical and Research Center, tells WebMD.
Allergic foods, including dairy, eggs, nuts, and seafood have been linked to the development or trigger of eczema and other allergic diseases in some studies. But others suggest a protective benefit for some of these foods.
In their latest investigation, Alm and colleagues examined dietary and allergy data from almost 5,000 children enrolled in the Swedish health study.
By the time they reached age 6 months, 14% of the infants had developed eczema. By their first birthdays, 21% had previous or current eczema.
While early fish consumption was found to protect against eczema, it did not seem to matter if the fish the young children ate contained large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
It has been suggested that omega-3 is protective against allergic disease, but several recent studies have failed to show this, Alm says.
"There seems to be something special in fish that helps protect against eczema, but we can't say what that is," he says.
Breastfeeding Not Protective
Among the other findings from the study, published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood:
- No link was seen between when dairy products were introduced into the diet and eczema risk.
- Having a furry pet in the home had no impact on risk.
- Surprisingly, breastfeeding was found to have no significant impact on eczema risk during the first year of life.
In guidelines published early this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for babies at high risk for developing asthma and allergies to be exclusively breastfed for the first few months of life.
"Exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months, compared with feeding regular formula made from cow's milk, appears to help protect high-risk children against milk allergy and eczema in the first two years of life," according to the guidelines.
The group also abandoned earlier recommendations that parents delay the introduction of potentially allergic foods until after a child's first birthday.
Earlier guidelines had called for delaying the introduction of cow's milk until age 1, eggs until age 2, and tree nuts, peanuts and fish until age 3.
While Alm says his findings make a case for introducing fish into an infant's diet during the first few months of life, Fleischer does not recommend this.
He calls the newly published study is intriguing, but far from convincing.
"I think more studies are needed before we can make a sweeping statement that it is a good idea to give 6- or 9-month-old babies fish," he says.