Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Reproduction and Development Group Symposium on ‘Nutrition and immunology from fetal life to old age’

Prematurity, immune function and infant feeding practices

Shelagh M. Hamptona1 c1

a1 Endocrinology and Metabolism Group, School of Biological Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 5XH, UK


Recently, there has been much interest in the literature in the role of early nutrition and the health of the individual in adulthood. A majority of infants in the UK are born full term, while preterm infants account for 4–6 % of the total births. Milk feeding practices are divided into three groups: breast, combination (breast-fed with formula as‘top-up) and bottle (formula). In studies conducted by our group and other researchers immune function in full-term and preterm infants has been assessed by monitoring total and specific immunoglobulin E and specific immunoglobulin G levels. Dietary modification by the pregnant mother with a history of allergy in the family has been shown to have a positive effect with respect to allergy outcome and prevention of atopic disease in the infant. However, this dietary modification has to occur before week 22 of pregnancy and continue until the end of lactation to achieve a beneficial outcome to the infant. The stress of mothers restricting their diets may be disadvantageous to the fetus, and therefore any gain due to the dietary restriction may be lost. Researchers have shown that the early introduction of complementary foods and the greater diversity of these foods appeared to result in an increase in the incidence of atopic disease in the infant. In conclusion, in order to reduce the risk in their babies, mothers with a family history of atopic disease should breast-feed for more than 15 weeks and introduce solid foods after 4 months, limiting the variety until at least 6 months.


c1 Corresponding author: Dr Shelagh M. Hampton, fax +44 (0)1483 576978, email