Babies who eat yoghurt regularly before they are 1 year old appear to be protected from developing eczema and allergies, new research from the University of Otago, Wellington, and the University of Auckland has found.

The effects were striking, according to study leader Dr Julian Crane, from the University of Otago Wellington's department of medicine.

The study, published this week in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, was funded by the Health Research Council and dairy giant Fonterra.

It involved 390 mothers from Wellington and Auckland. Mums were asked about various foods they gave their babies in the first year of life, and the babies were regularly checked for symptoms of eczema. At 1 year old all babies had a skin-prick test for allergies.

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"We found up to 70 per cent reduction in eczema and allergy in the first year of life for daily consumers," Crane said. "The more regularly yoghurt was given, the greater the effect."

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Parents should think about feeding their babies yoghurt, especially if they were worried about allergies and eczema risk, the researchers said.

"We found that regular consumption of yoghurt gave stronger protection, but what we don't know yet, is what type of yoghurt is best or how much is protective," Crane said.

It was not clear if the effect would last into childhood, and the study did not prove that yoghurt was responsible, Crane said.

"This would require a trial in which some infants get yoghurt and some don't. No such trial has yet been done.

"What we have found is an 'association' – infants who were fed yoghurt had less eczema and were less likely to be allergic."

Crane said it was possible that parents who gave yoghurt to their babies were also doing other things that cut the risk of allergies, which the researchers were not aware of, or parents whose children were at increased risk of eczema and allergies might also deliberately avoid yoghurt, which would skew the results to make it look like yoghurt was giving protection.

"We don't think this is the case, but only a trial where parents can't choose yoghurt could prove this," Crane said.

Full-fat, plain, unsweetened yoghurt is already recommended by New Zealand's Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation and other groups for infants from 6 months old.

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