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Nov 19, 2013 08:31 AM EST

Introducing solid food with breast milk after the 17th week of birth could significantly reduce food allergies in babies, according to a University of Southampton. Researchers believe that giving the baby solid food besides breast-feeding helps it develop a better, stronger immune system to fight food allergies.

"Mothers should continue to breast-feed beyond introducing solids into the diet so the immune system can benefit from the immunological factors in breast milk that educate the immune system," said lead researcher Kate Grimshaw, a research fellow and allergy specialist at the University of Southampton, Medical Daily reports.

"My theory was that if food allergens -- those things that infants actually become allergic to -- aren't there at the same time as the breast milk, the breast milk can't educate the immune system," Grimshaw said.

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Grimshaw warned that incorporating solid food before 17 weeks could increase the risk of developing food allergies in children.

Infants cannot digest solid food before four to six months of age because their body does not identify solid objects as food. This makes the infant's immune system act against the food, which eventually turns into an allergy.

For example, children with peanut allergies wouldn't have suffered the condition if their mothers introduced peanuts alongside their breast milk. Their body would have gotten used to the new product in the presence of a familiar food.

For the study, Grimshaw and her colleagues compared the diets of 41 children who developed food allergies before turning 2 with 82 children without food allergies. The researchers found that children with food allergies started on solid foods earlier (at about 16 weeks or younger) than children without allergies.

Grimshaw said that how breast milk protects children from developing food allergies remains a grey area.

"It may have to do with [antibodies], but that would be totally speculative. Breast-feeding is good for the child in many different ways, and it may be helpful in possibly preventing food allergies," Grimshaw said, Philly reports.

The finding has been published Nov. 18 in the online edition of the journal Pediatrics.

The scientists said that the study further supports the recommendations of American Academy of Pediatrics, European Society of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. Together, all the organizations have urged mothers not to introduce solid [foods] before four to six months of age.

At the same time, the finding also supports the American Academy of Pediatrics' breastfeeding recommendations that breastfeeding should continue while solid [foods] are introduced into the diet.

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