- Pregnancy & Childbirth
- Attachment Parenting
- Family Nutrition
- Family Wellness
Human milk is more than food. It's a complex living substance, like blood, with a long list of active germ-fighting and health-promoting ingredients. These help protect babies against all kinds of infections, common and not-so-common.
A drop of breastmilk contains around one million white blood cells. These cells, called macrophages ("big eaters"), gobble up germs. Breastmilk is also power-packed with immunoglobulin A (IgA), which coats the lining of babies' immature intestines, preventing germs from leaking through. Secretory IgA also works to prevent food allergies. By coating the intestinal lining like a protective paint, it prevents molecules of foreign foods from getting into the bloodstream to set up an allergic reaction.
Colostrum, the milk mothers produce in the first few days after birth, is especially rich in IgA, just at the time when the newborn is first exposed to the outside world and needs protection from germs and foreign substances entering his body. Colostrum also contains higher amounts of white blood cells and infection-fighting substances than mature milk. Think of colostrum as your baby's first important immunization.
As babies grow, mother's milk continues to provide important protection against infection and disease. Human infants receive antibodies through the placenta, but these are gradually used up during the first six months. Human milk fills in the immunity gap until baby's own immune system matures and kicks in. Even babies who continue to nurse into toddlerhood benefit from the many immune factors in their mother's milk.
Immunities made-to-order. Each mother provides custom-designed milk to protect her infant. When a baby is exposed to a new germ, mother's body manufactures antibodies to that germ. These antibodies show up in her milk and are passed along to her baby. Many a nursing mother can tell the story of the entire family--dad, mom, siblings--coming down with the flu and the nursing baby having the mildest case, or not getting sick at all. When mother comes down with a bug, the best thing she can do for her baby is to keep breastfeeding.
Derrick and Patrice Jelliffe, pioneers in breastfeeding research, stated that breastfed infants are "biochemically different." This difference in body chemistry may be the reason they are healthier. While babies are breastfeeding, they have fewer and less serious respiratory infections, less diarrhea, and less vomiting. When breastfed babies do become ill, they are less likely to become dehydrated and need hospitalization.
Here are some specific ways in which breastfeeding protects babies from illness:
Breastfeeding protects against ear infections in four possible ways:
Another way in which breastfeeding protects tiny tummies is by promoting the growth of healthful bacteria in the intestines. Intestines are healthiest when you can keep the right "bugs" in the bowels. The healthful bacteria, known as bifidus bacteria, do good things for the body in return for a warm place to live. They manufacture vitamins and nutrients and keep the harmful bacteria in check. The high levels of lactose in breastmilk particularly encourage the growth of the healthful resident bacteria Lactobacillus bifidus.