Pregnancy, Baby
5th Aug 2020

Whether you’ve just welcomed your first baby into the world, or have added a sibling to your existing brood, the first few months with your child is a time full of unique experiences.

One of these is breastfeeding, which not only satisfies your little one’s hunger and thirst, but can also be a beautiful bonding experience. But, did you know the benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond providing nutrition and comfort to your bub?

Nursing also helps to support your baby’s developing immune system to defend them against unwanted bugs and germs.

Discover the three main ways that breast milk may help to support your baby’s developing immune system.

Breast Milk Contains Antibodies

During pregnancy, a mother passes important immune cells (known as antibodies) to her baby in the womb, which aids the development of their little immune system. These antibodies can find bugs and germs and alert the body, stimulating an immune response (1,2)To find more information about antibodies, click here.

This transfer of antibodies continues beyond pregnancy into infancy, when the mother continues to pass these important antibodies to her newborn via breast milk.

This process is known as passive immunity, which is defined as the process of receiving immune components (like antibodies) from an external source (like a mother’s breast milk) rather than the body producing them.

Your little one will also begin to develop their own antibodies every time they are exposed to a germ or foreign invader, helping to build up their immunity over time. This is known as adaptive immunity, which you can find out more about here.

As a new mother, your ability to produce specific antibodies for your baby is incredible. In fact, your body will produce specific antibodies in response to the pathogens in your immediate surroundings.

When these specially created antibodies are passed onto your baby during breastfeeding, they provide protection during the first weeks and months of your little one’s life, when it’s needed most (1,3).

Breast Milk Contains Important Nutrients

In addition to passing on antibodies, breast milk provides your baby with the nutrients they need to support their developing immune system.

When it comes to the immune system, nutrition has an important role to play. The different vitamins and minerals we consume through our diets help to support the health and function of our inbuilt defence mechanism.

This also applies to your bub, whose developing immune system requires a range of macro and micronutrients.

But, while adults can get adequate nutrition from a balanced diet, breast milk is considered the best source of nutrients for your little bundle of joy. This is thanks to its rich protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamin, and mineral content. If you’d like to learn more about how nutrition supports a healthy immune system, you can find more information here.

It’s also one of the reasons that the Australian Government’s Infant Feeding Guidelines recommend breastfeeding as a baby’s sole source of nutrition for their first six months of life (4,5,6).

Beyond their first six months, it’s recommended that breastfeeding is incorporated into your child’s healthy balanced diet of complementary foods until they are two years old. (4,5,6).

This is because the first 1,000 days from conception through to your child’s second birthday is recognised as a unique window of time, during which proper nutrition helps to support a child to grow to their full potential. (4,5,6).

Even if your breastfeeding journey hasn’t gone as planned, any breast milk you can offer your bub plays an important role in their health (7).

Breast Milk Contains Healthy Bacteria

The microbiome is the colony of bacteria that live in and on our bodies, helping us to absorb nutrients and regulate our immune systems.

Did you know that the gut is home to approximately 70-80% of the body’s immune cells and a healthy gut microbiome plays an important role in supporting immune system health (8)?

Breast milk contains a dynamic array of probiotics (healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (food for these bacteria) that can support your little one’s gut microbiome development.

When you breastfeed your baby, you pass on different types of prebiotics that fuel the healthy bacteria in their gut.

Thorough research has shown that these prebiotics in breast milk (called oligosaccaharides) play an important role in supporting an infant’s healthy microbiome and immune development (9,10)If you’d like to learn more about how the microbiome, you can find more information here.

What If Breastfeeding Isn’t An Option?

Remember, every mother’s experience with breastfeeding is unique. If your breastfeeding journey hasn’t gone as planned or breastfeeding isn’t an option, a high-quality infant formula is the best alternative.

In Australia, formula is manufactured under strict guidelines to ensure they are adequate to meet your little one’s nutritional needs.

After all, ensuring your baby gets the essential nutrients they need is the best way to support their long-term immune health, regardless of whether these come from breast milk or infant formula.

If you have any concerns about breastfeeding your baby, talk to your doctor who can provide tailored advice based on your own experiences. If you’re looking for additional support, call the breastfeeding helpline on 1800 686 268.

Have you found this article useful? If so, you might be interested in the following:

The 3 Stages Of Breast Milk & How They Support Your Baby

This Is How Your Child’s Immune System Develops (And How To Support It)

Breastfeeding Battles: Achieving A Successful Latch

References

  1. Australian Government Department of Health – Health Direct. (2019). How your baby’s immune system develops. Accessed 26 May 2020 https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au/how-your-babys-immune-system-develops
  2. Simon, A, Hollander, G & McMichael, A. (2015). Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 282: 20143085.
  3. Australian Breastfeeding Association. (2019). Breastfeeding and immunity. Accessed 27 May 2020 https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/breastfeeding-and-immunity
  4. Moore, T, Arefadib, N, Deery, A, & West, S. (2017). The First Thousand Days: An Evidence Paper. Parkville, Victoria; Centre for Community Child Health, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
  5. 1,000 Days. (2018). Why 1,000 Days. Accessed 26 May 2020. https://thousanddays.org/the-issue/why-1000-days/
  6. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. (2019). Strong Foundations: Getting it Right in the First 1000 Days. Accessed 26 May 2020 https://www.rch.org.au/ccch/first-thousand-days/
  7. Australian Breastfeeding Association. (2018). How long should I breastfeed my baby? Accessed 28 May 2020 https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/how-long-should-i-breastfeed-my-baby
  8. Furness, J, Kunze, W & Clerc, N. (1999). Nutrient tasting and signalling mechanisms in the gut. II. The intestine as a sensory organ: neural, endocrine, and immune responses. The American Journal of Physiology, 277 (5). G922-G928.
  9. Ayechu-Muruzabal, V, van Stight, A, Mank, M, et al. (2018). Diversity of Human Milk Oligosaccharides and Effects on Early Life Immune Development. Frontiers in Pediatrics, doi: 10.3389/fped.2018.00239
  10. Triantia, V, Bode, L & van Neerven, R. (2018). Immunological Effects of Human Milk Oligosaccharides. Frontiers in Pediatrics, doi: 10.3389/fped.2018.00190

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