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Can anything prevent my child from getting eczema?

As the number of children who develop atopic dermatitis (AD) grows, so do the studies looking for a way to prevent it. So far, no one thing guarantees your child won’t develop AD, the most common type of eczema. Making some lifestyle changes, however, may reduce your child’s risk.

Here’s what researchers have discovered.

Breastfeeding may reduce eczema risk

For years, findings from studies indicated that breastfeeding had no effect on whether a child developed AD. Recently, that’s changed.

Findings from one study suggest that breastfeeding may help newborns at high risk of developing AD. 

A child has a high risk of developing AD when a parent, brother, or sister has one or more of the following diseases:

  • Atopic dermatitis (AD)

  • Asthma

  • Hay fever

In this study, breastfeeding a high-risk newborn reduced the child’s chance of developing AD by 33%. Researchers also discovered that breastfeeding a child with a high risk of developing AD may protect the child from getting severe AD.

According to this study, the child’s risk was lower when mothers:

  • Breastfed for 4 to 6 months

  • Began weaning at 4 to 5 months

The findings also suggest that for the baby’s first 4 months of life, a mother should breastfeed only. No solid foods should be given during this time. The risk of developing AD was higher when babies were fed solid foods before 4 months of age.

Breastfeeding and AD risk: Bottom line

Results from studies differ. If your child has a high risk of developing AD, breastfeeding for the first 4 months may reduce your child’s risk. Breastfeeding also has many other health benefits.

Eating a healthy diet while pregnant and breastfeeding recommended

No particular diet or food has been found to prevent AD. That said, recent findings suggest that mothers-to-be should play close attention to what they eat and drink.

Pregnancy and diet

Mothers-to-be who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, and vitamin D may reduce their child’s risk of developing eczema.

Pregnant woman holding apple

After looking at findings from 42 studies, researchers discovered that children had a lower risk of developing AD when their mothers ate a healthy diet while pregnant.

In these studies, a healthy diet was one rich in:

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Fish

  • Vitamin D

Taking a probiotic during pregnancy may also slightly lower the risk of a child developing AD.

Diet, pregnancy and AD risk: Bottom line

Eating a healthy diet while pregnant has many benefits. Research shows that following the diet described above may lower your child’s risk of developing AD. Before you try this diet, ask your obstetrician if it’s right for you. Your allergies or other health conditions could rule out this diet.

Eliminating a lot of foods from your diet can do more harm than good

Food allergies are common in children until about 2 years of age. Topping the list of foods that can cause a food allergy are cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, hazelnuts, fish, and chocolate.

Children who have a food allergy may have an increased risk of developing AD.

To reduce a child’s risk of developing a food allergy, some women stop eating the foods most likely to cause a food allergy. They eliminate these foods from the time they get pregnant until they stop breastfeeding.

We now have research findings that show this may not be necessary. In looking at 42 studies, researchers found that when mothers stopped eating these foods, it didn’t change a child’s risk of developing AD.

Eliminating foods and AD: Bottom line

Eliminating certain foods from your diet may not reduce your child’s risk of developing eczema.

If you fail to get certain nutrients because you stop eating many healthy foods, you could jeopardize your child’s health. Always ask your doctor before eliminating healthy foods from your diet.

Moisturizing a newborn’s skin may prevent eczema

When someone has AD, the skin becomes extremely dry and easily irritated. These problems occur because the skin loses water too quickly.

Given this fact, researchers wondered whether applying moisturizer to a baby’s skin from birth might reduce a child’s risk of developing AD.

To test this idea, they ran studies. In one study, some parents were shown 3 eczema friendly moisturizers and asked to choose the one they’d like to use on their baby. These parents were instructed to apply that moisturizer to their child’s skin every day. They were to apply it everywhere, except the baby’s scalp. This group of parents also received a booklet about infant skin care.

In this same study, a second group of parents received only the booklet about infant skin care.

At 6 months, the researchers examined all of the children in the study. The group of children being moisturized developed 50% less AD than the other group of children.

This finding has led to more research and similar findings.

Moisturizer and AD: Bottom line

Applying moisturizer may reduce your child’s risk of developing AD. Before you do this, ask your dermatologist to recommend a moisturizer. Some moisturizers contain ingredients, such as fragrance, which could irritate your child’s skin or cause an allergic reaction.

Having a dog in home may reduce eczema risk

The eternal dispute about whether dogs or cats are better will probably never end. When it comes to reducing the risk of a child developing AD, however, it appears that dog ownership wins.

A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics supports this. In this study, the children’s parents had one or more of these conditions — atopic dermatitis, hay fever, or asthma. When a parent has one or more of these conditions, the child has an increased risk of developing AD.

For these children, having a dog in the house before the child’s first birthday dramatically reduced the child’s risk of developing AD by age 4. Having a cat in the home before a child’s first birthday, however, increased the child’s risk of developing AD.

When researchers analyzed earlier studies that looked at the effect of having a dog or cat in the home, they found a similar result. Having a dog in the home decreased the risk of a child developing AD by about 25%. Living with a cat did not increase or reduce the child’s risk of developing AD.

Dogs and AD: Bottom line

The findings from studies suggest that having a dog in the home may reduce a child’s risk of developing AD.

A dermatologist can help you apply these findings to your situation

When thinking about whether to try something that may reduce your child’s risk, many factors play a role. It’s essential to consider the climate where you live, family history of allergies, and many other factors. 

Your dermatologist can help you develop a strategy that’s best for you and your family.

Getty Images

American Academy of Dermatology. “Atopic dermatitis: Risk factors for disease development.” Last accessed January 31, 2018.

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Epstein TG, Bernstein DI, et al. “Opposing effects of cat and dog ownership and allergic sensitization on eczema in an atopic birth cohort.” J Pediatr. 2011; 158:265-71.

Little C, Blattner CM, et al. “Update: Can breastfeeding and maternal diet prevent atopic dermatitis?” Dermatol Pract Concept. 2017;7:63-5.

Ownby DR and Johnson CC. “Does exposure to cats or dogs in early life alter a child’s risk of atopic dermatitis? J Pediatr. 2011; 158:184–6.

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