Breastfeeding Protects Your Baby

The medical community has long known that breast-fed infants get fewer infections than those fed on formula. Until a short time ago, doctors thought that the reason that breast-fed babies thrived was due to the fact that feeding directly from the breast eliminated the entry of bacteria into the baby's system. It's true that formula presents many opportunities for contamination, since it must be mixed with water and then placed in a bottle. Still, even infants who receive sterilized formula have a higher incidence of meningitis, gastrointestinal ailments, ear infections, and infections of the respiratory and urinary tracts than do their breast-fed peers.

Active Assistance

As it turns out, mother's milk has special properties that provide active assistance in helping newborns ward off disease. This is of particular benefit during the first few months when infants' immune systems are still immature and cannot offer an effective response to foreign organisms. That's why both UNICEF and the World Health Organization advise breastfeeding for the first two years and beyond, though mothers should note that a child's immune response only reaches its full maturity by around age five.

Maternal Antibodies

During pregnancy, all babies receive maternal antibodies by way of the placenta. These proteins remain in the baby's blood for several weeks to months after delivery and help to neutralize the threat of dangerous microbes. Breast-fed infants have added protection since there are antibodies as well as other proteins and immune cells in human milk that can bolster the baby's immature immune system during this time. These molecules and cells help prevent microorganisms from penetrating the body's tissues.

Some molecules bind to the microbes in the hollow space of the gastrointestinal tract or lumen, serving as a block to the digestive tract and other body cavities. Other molecules reduce the supply of certain minerals and vitamins and harmful bacteria needed in order to thrive within the digestive tract. Some of the immune cells in human milk are called phagocytes and these helpful cells make a direct attack on harmful microbes, while other immune cells set up a chemical reaction that serves to invigorate the infant's own immune response.

There have been many studies that suggest the presence of certain factors in human milk that may induce the infant's immune system to mature faster than that of an infant fed on formula. It is known, for instance, that breast-fed infants respond to immunizations by producing higher levels of antibodies than do their formula-fed peers. All of this is reason enough to know that Mother Nature has provided us with the best possible means of protecting our infants: marvelous human breast milk.