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Thread: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

  1. #1
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    Default The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    Over three years ago, before I had my daughter, I attended a class on the wonders of breastfeeding. One of the claims touted was the decreased incidence of ear infections. It shocked me to no end after when after my DD arrived, who was getting mostly breastmilk and maybe one or two supplement bottles a day (at the insistence of a pediatrician I have since dismissed), she developed chronic ear infections for the first two years of her life. I shook my head and blamed myself and the formula because I believed that if I had given only breastmilk, her ears would be healthy.

    Fast forward to baby #2. DS has received nothing but breastmilk and is now fighting his first ear infection at 4 months. Is the breastmilk a myth? Does breastmilk only protect against ear infections if it is taken out of the breast and not from a bottle (both my children attend daycare because I am a full-time working mom)? Are my children just genetically predisposed to ear infections?

    I am desperate to understand because I don't want to repeat my daughter's constant ear issues with my son. I don't want him exposed to as many antibiotics as she was. I don't want to constantly do battle with a pediatrician. If breastfeeding is the answer, what am I doing wrong?

  2. #2
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    My friend had the exact same issue, both of her daughters were EBF for several years, no bottles ever, and had chronic ear infections. My guess is that it is nothing that you aren't/are doing! With your first DD only 1-2 bottles per day supplement probably would not have effected it...just my feelings but that is a tiny amount compared to what you must have been contributing via breast milk. I think ear infections are complicated, and perhaps your children are more prone. I don't think you should blame yourself!
    and Mama to two little girls

  3. #3
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    Hi mama, definitely don't blame yourself for the ear infections! My three babies have all been EBF, the first one had 5 ear infections in the first year, many courses of antibiotics, and ended up getting 2 sets of tubes. The other two fortunately have not had this issue. Some kids are just predisposed, I think partly due to the anatomy of their Eustachian tube that leads to fluid buildup when they have a cold, then the fluid gets infected with bacteria and they have an ear infection. So while breastfeeding may be protective, it doesn't mean that the kids can't get ear infections. But maybe your kids would have even MORE ear infections if you weren't breastfeeding, you know? And I really don't think the fact that your daughter had some formula had anything to do with her infections. I totally hear you about not wanting the multiple courses of antibiotics etc - I really was not happy about that with my son. Anyway, mainly just wanted to say I know how frustrating it is and it is not your fault!

  4. #4

    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    I am so sorry about the ear infections, that must be frustrating for you! After two ear infection free kids, my baby daughter (8 months old) has had ear infections twice during bad colds (yes she also has had colds, so did my middle child, while the oldest never did until past age two.) Luckily for us, the ear infections have not been severe or appear to be recurring.

    But it's not a myth. Studies very clearly show that breastfeeding decreases the risk of ear infections, and decreases the risk they will be severe. (Or, more accurately, they show that formula feeding INCREASES the risk of occurance and risk of severity.) This is basically what the studies show about any number of illnesses and health related outcomes. But they certainly do not show that no breastfed baby ever gets ear infections or is ever ill. Some exclusively breastfed babies will still get ear infections, some will still have severe or recurring ear infections.

    Like bfwmomof3 says, Our doctor also told us that some children are more prone to ear infections due to anatomy. Anatomy is what my pediatrician thinks may be going on with my daugter. Her 'infections" have basically meant that, due to the pressure of snot and mucous from her colds, there was terrible pressure in her ear. We experienced this as one night of screaming and crying (which we had not idea at teh time waht the cause was) then mucousy-stuff pouring out of her ear, which was disgusting, (I called them ear buggers) but she was not in pain after the initial pressure was relieved when her ear ruptured. (this all sounds much more horrible than it was, although it certainly was an upsetting experience for us, she is fine and her hearing is fine.) Reading what bfwmomof3 says, I wonder if perhaps my daugter had the buildup, but somehow escaped the fluid becoming infected, becasue it did not build up long before a hole was made so the ear drained on its own, quite disgustingly? Just musing. Our doctor did prescribe antibiotics.

    Oral antibiots did not work because she would not take the ginormous dose-really, this kid knew all the tricks- so we did antibiotic ear drops instead. My doctor also suggested a little olive oil in the ear (or any food grade oil.) There are many "natural" remedies as well that you can find online or in a natural remedies book, such as onion, garlic oil. I am not saying this is appropriate in your baby's case, at all, this is just an FYI. you can find info out there easily if you are looking for alternative treatments for ear infections.
    Last edited by @llli*lllmeg; April 22nd, 2013 at 11:18 AM.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    Quote Originally Posted by @llli*bfwmomof3 View Post
    Some kids are just predisposed, I think partly due to the anatomy of their Eustachian tube that leads to fluid buildup when they have a cold, then the fluid gets infected with bacteria and they have an ear infection. So while breastfeeding may be protective, it doesn't mean that the kids can't get ear infections. But maybe your kids would have even MORE ear infections if you weren't breastfeeding, you know?
    Some babies are just extra prone to ear infections. Probably for anatomical reasons, as the PP mentioned. Maybe your child's Eustachian tubes are a little straighter and/or narrower than average. Or maybe your child is just a little more susceptible than average to the bacteria that cause ear infections- that's all it would take to make him or her more prone to ear infections.

    Social factors also weigh in here- babies with older siblings and babies who go to daycare are more likely to get ear infections because they are exposed to more germs. This doesn't mean you should deny your child an older sibling or keep him out of daycare, though!

    Breastfeeding does have a protective effect against ear infections, but the protection is to some extent a statistics game. On average, breastfed babies have fewer ear infections than formula-fed babies. But that average encompasses a very broad range of variation, and includes plenty of breastfed babies who come down with lots of ear infections and also plenty of formula-fed babies who never get ear infections.

    Please don't blame yourself, mama. You have done everything right.
    Coolest thing my big girl said recently: "How can you tell the world is moving when you are standing on it?"
    Coolest thing my little girl sang recently: "I love dat one-two pupples!"

  6. #6

    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    There are some herbal eardrop (actually, I think it's just garlic in olive oil), and you could try putting that in her ears as soon as she gets a cold, and see if it makes any difference. Have you had her adjusted? Chiropractors say it helps, but who knows.

    It seems that the trouble with mild to moderate ear infections is that the cure is worse than the disease. Our family doctor never gave her antibiotics for ear infections, but she also never complained about the pain. Some docs say just give tylenol for the pain, and the infection will take care of itself. Just a thought.

  7. #7
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    It's not a myth yet all babies' anatomy makes them more prone to ear infections than older kids. When the eustachian tube develops the curve an adult's has they should decrease (around age 6). Bottle feeding babies, feeding them lying down from a bottle does make them prone to ear infections and feeding them formula in general makes them prone to all infections since they're not receiving antibodies in their milk.

    You're not doing anything wrong but I would guess your family tends to have ear infections more than other families due to genetics. I get sinus infections every time I get a cold and I know people who haven't had a sinus infection and they're 30 yrs old. I can't imagine that, but I've never had a UTI and have friends who get UTIs super easily. It's not all things you can control but you are definitely decreasing risk by breastfeeding.
    Nursed my sweet daughter 3 years, 3 mos.

  8. #8
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    I'm an epidemiologist so I hope I can offer you a little of my professional perspective on this issue--
    When we say there is decreased incidence among one group vs another, all it means is that when you look at a very large group of people, usually hundreds or thousands, and you look at the overall rate of an outcome (ear infections in this case) in subjects with or without an exposure (breastfeeding in this case), you see a lower rate in one group compared to the other. The difference in rates might be pretty small. But in statistical tests, it's significant (not due to chance). I don't know the numbers from actual studies, but it could be as small a difference as 10 ear infections in 500 breastfed babies vs. 20 ear infections in 500 formula-fed babies. That would be a 2-fold difference in risk, which is actually pretty large as epidemiology studies go. We would conclude that breastfeeding is pretty highly protective against ear infections. But if you put those 30 babies that did have ear infections in a room together, still, 1/3 of them were breastfed!

    It means that if you want to reduce the odds that your baby will have ear infections, all else being equal, you should breastfeed. But it doesn't mean that every breastfed baby is going to have fewer ear infections than the average formula-fed baby. Many will have fewer; some will have more. As the previous posters have pointed out, there are many other factors that can predispose a baby to ear infections. If you have one of those, it can totally overwhelm any protective effects of breastfeeding on ear infection risk. But the other positive effects, of course, like protection from other infections, etc. are still going to be there.

    My baby is exclusively breastfed and she's had probably 10 colds this winter. It has been unrelenting. I'm sure it's because she is in daycare. I keep telling myself that if I hadn't breastfed her, she might have had even more! It's impossible to know if this is true or not. There is no controlled experiment for that! But it could be that your kids have a predisposition to ear infections and if you hadn't breastfed, they would have had more frequent or more complicated infections. Some supplementation with formula CERTAINLY would have made only a negligible difference, if any.

  9. #9
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    In addition to all previous comments, another thing that can increase the risk of more frequent ear infections is exposure to cigarette smoke...hope that's not an issue for you but you never know! Also, genetics can play a factor as far as the amount of earwax your kids naturally have as well. Also, are you cleaning their ears, and if so...hopefully not with a Q-Tip? Generally the issue there is rupturing the eardrum but it could also introduce other unwanted bacteria and in general it's a good idea to just leave the earwax in there so it can prevent infection. Just some other ideas for you. But most likely, your kids' frequent infections are just their genetic luck of the draw. :/ I'm sure they have many other wonderful genetic qualities to make up for it in other areas

  10. #10
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    Default Re: The Truth About Breastmilk and Ear Infections

    Thank you all for calming me down. I guess I just have children who will be susceptible to ear infections in spite of my best effort. It's tough when you know you are doing everything right - or as close to right as possible - and it still backfires. I just hate to see my little ones get sick and I thought breastmilk would provide more of a protective aura. I will look into some homeopathic approaches that I can take when a cold first starts because like one poster said, it seems like the gunk from the cold just pushes it's way into the ears and manifests into an infection.

    Much appreciation!

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