File photo: While breastfeeding appeared to protect against eczema, the study found no proven link. Picture: Reuters

London - Breastfed babies are largely protected against developing eczema as teenagers, research suggests.

Newborns who feed only on breast milk for at least three months have a 54 percent lower risk of eczema at the age of 16, the study found.

The researchers, from King’s College London, the University of Bristol and Harvard University, tracked 13 000 babies born in 1996 and 1997 until they were 16.

Eczema affects one in five children and one in ten adults, leaving the skin itchy, dry, cracked, sore and red. Study leader Dr Carsten Flohr, of King’s College London, said: "The World Health Organisation recommends between four and six months of exclusive breastfeeding to aid prevention of allergy and associated illnesses.

"Our findings add further weight to the importance of campaigns like the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, which is tackling low rates of breastfeeding globally."

The study, published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal, found 0.3 percent of breastfed children developed eczema at the age of 16, compared to 0.7 percent of those who were not breastfed.

But many women struggle to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, including prior illness, low milk supplies or because their baby simply does not take to it.

After years of breastfeeding campaigns, experts have started to warn that women are under too much pressure.

While breastfeeding appeared to protect against eczema, the study found no proven link.

The researchers, who are funded by the NHS National Institute for Health Research, think breastfeeding helps ward off allergies by passing good bacteria from mother to infant very early in life. This is thought to provide their immune system with a strong ‘footprint’ that can still be seen in adulthood.

Professor Neena Modi, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "This study adds further weight to the evidence of the health benefits of breastfeeding for babies.

"But it also shows that these should not be exaggerated and mothers should certainly not be demonised if for whatever reason they do not breastfeed."