Autism and the Breastfeeding Family
Vienna VA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 2, February-March 2001, p. 10-11
Autism, a biological developmental disorder, is on the rise in the United States and many other countries. Autism causes abnormal and often delayed language development or communication skills, as well as problems with social interaction. Symptoms of autism may include purposeless, repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking. Many autistic children experience strong food allergies or sensitivities, or are prone to digestive disorders. Much remains unknown about the causes of this perplexing disorder and many of the treatments are controversial.
How Breastfeeding Can Benefit the Autistic Child
While few studies have been done on autism and breastfeeding, the available research indicates that continuing to breastfeed has many potential benefits for the autistic child.
Autistic children often have chronic health problems, including recurrent infections and respiratory problems, allergies and chemical sensitivities, and digestive problems. Numerous studies have documented that breastfeeding strengthens the immune system, protects the gastrointestinal system, and protects against food allergies. These health benefits continue for as long as the child is breastfed, and in many cases continue well into adulthood (American Academy of Pediatrics 1997).
Most people with autism experience neurological, cognitive, and developmental problems, and many experience difficulties with processing or organizing visual or auditory information. Human milk contains high concentrations of substances that are essential for healthy brain growth, such as the amino acid taurine and the fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). Researchers have found that breastfeeding can enhance cognitive development, visual development, and sensory skills in children (Lucas 1992; Birch 1993; Baumgartner 1984). In a recent study, New Zealand researchers observed a correlation between extended breastfeeding and higher intelligence test scores later in childhood (Horwood 1998).
Breastfeeding may also be beneficial to the emotional development of the autistic child, since it provides a special opportunity for autistic children to experience close physical and emotional contact. The breastfeeding relationship also offers the mother of an autistic child a chance to bond more fully with a child who may not provide optimal emotional feedback. Mothers of breastfed autistic children have reported that their children appeared to be more responsive, better adjusted socially, more likely to engage in imaginative play, and more affectionate than their formula-fed autistic peers (Jackson 1992; Reznek 1992).
Finally, one Japanese study suggests that breastfeeding may protect against autism. Researchers studied the weaning times of 145 autistic infants compared to a control group of 224 normal children. Even though none of the children in the study breastfed for very long, they found that the children in their control group breastfed significantly longer than the autistic infants in their study. The researchers, who had previously found a correlation between incidence of autism and cyclical outbreaks of pneumonia and bronchiolitis (Tanoue 1988), speculated that breastfeeding lowered the risk of developing autism by protecting against pneumonia (Tanoue 1989). Those with autism may be more vulnerable to infection during the newborn period.
Diet, Autism, and Breastfeeding
Some parents have found that dietary modification improves their autistic child's behavior and reduces their symptoms. This generally involves removing certain problematic foods or nonfood items such as artificial colors, flavors, additives, salicylates (such as aspirin), the proteins gluten and casein, yeast, mold, and sugar from the child's diet. Many nursing mothers of autistic children have found it helpful to eliminate these substances from their own diet as well. It may take several weeks or longer to totally eliminate all traces of these items from both the mother and her child, especially when proteins like casein or gluten are involved.
One especially popular form of dietary modification for people with autism is the “casein-free, gluten-free” diet, which involves elimination of all foods containing the milk-specific protein casein and the wheat protein gluten. Children and nursing mothers on this diet avoid all dairy products, all foods containing wheat, oats, or barley, and numerous processed and prepared foods containing casein or gluten additives. While this diet can be challenging to implement and does not appear to work for every autistic individual, some families have found it very beneficial. The Autism Network for Dietary Intervention (ANDI) provides information and support to families who wish to follow this diet. (See sidebar.)
Some parents have expressed concern that casein, which naturally occurs in human milk, might be problematic for their autistic child. Human milk casein proteins are physiochemically different from the casein proteins in cow's milk, with a different amino acid composition (Lawrence 1999). The caseins in human milk are considered more easily digestible than the caseins in cow's milk, and may have important immunological properties that could be beneficial to autistic children. Recent research has shown that human kappa-casein, which is found in human milk, promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria which coats and protects the intestinal system of breastfed infants (Stromqvist 1995).
How Leaders Can Help
Parents of autistic children must navigate through a bewildering array of specialists, treatment options, and controversial opinions as they try to make the best possible choices for their child and family. This difficult journey can be even more challenging when the breastfeeding relationship comes under attack. Mothers who wish to continue breastfeeding their autistic child may feel unsupported in their decisions.
Health care providers, therapists, and other specialists may recommend early weaning for autistic children, suggesting that breastfeeding is contributing to the child's problems. These specialists may not be knowledgeable about breastfeeding, and may not be familiar with nursing toddlers or older children. As a result, they may perceive an autistic child's nursing as abnormal or even pathological. Leaders can help the mothers of autistic children educate these specialists about breastfeeding. They can provide accurate, up-to-date information on the benefits of extended breastfeeding and can provide perspective on typical nursing behavior in toddlers and older children.
Leaders can help mothers dialogue more effectively with the health care providers, using Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) skills to ask questions, express feelings, and give information in non threatening ways. Leaders can also direct parents to helpful resources, including books and printed materials, support groups and networks, and other LLL Leaders and mothers who have personal experience with autism and breastfeeding. These resources can help mothers make informed decisions about what will work best for their child and family.
Leaders may receive calls from mothers who are wondering about something they have heard or read about autism and breastfeeding. With the help of the Professional Liaison Department, Leaders can help the mother critically evaluate specific information to assess its accuracy. Leaders can also provide a much-needed perspective, helping mothers sort out factual information from personal opinion or anecdotal experience.
Mothers of autistic children face difficult decisions that may be outside the scope of LLLI or the experience of most LLL Leaders. While Leaders may not be able to answer every question or address every concern, they can listen empathetically to these mothers and provide valuable support. By providing warmth, perspective, and encouragement, Leaders can help mothers see the best in their very special child. Most importantly, Leaders can empower mothers of autistic children to develop their own mothering style and make the best possible decisions for their families.
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Birch, E., et al. Breastfeeding and optimal visual development. J Pediatr Opthal Strab 1993; 30:33-38. Horwood, J., Fergusson, D. Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics January 1998; 101(1):e9.
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THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1997; 338-39, 359-60.
Note: web addresses updated 7/17/16