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Benefits of Breastfeeding on the Immune System of an Infant

Updated: May 30, 2021

You have to admit that the human body is a chronic workaholic. It is constantly breaking down, rebuilding, and repairing body tissue. This process is especially rapid in infants and young children, which explains why they grow so quickly. To perform this the body requires the right fuel which contains the perfect blend of nutrients to sustain healthy growth and development. The answer to this is…breast milk.

Breast milk is nature's design for feeding babies until they are strong enough to take solid foods like adults. You've probably heard that breast milk contains all the necessary nutrients required for normal growth and promotion of good health in infants. However, it’s not only important for the growth and development of their body but also their immune system.

This is due to the high content of antibodies in the mother's milk, which gives the child a head start in building their immunity. We'll look at how breast milk contributes to an infant's immunity to diseases.

What is immunity?

Immunity is considered the ability of the body to defend itself against disease-causing organisms or toxins. The body's immune system comprises several proteins and cells that act collectively to protect a person against diseases. When germs or toxins enter the body, they trigger a response, and white blood cells attack the unwanted invader. Other elements of the body's immunity are also triggered into action. These act together to fend off the attack and prevent further damage to the body.

What about immunity in infants?

Babies are born with much weaker immune systems than adults. At birth, the immune system of a child consists mainly of antibodies (special proteins created by the body to fight foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses) the mother shared across the placenta throughout pregnancy. Unfortunately, this form of immunity only lasts for the first six months or so of the infant’s life. As the infant grows they develop immunity against infectious organisms, but this is a slow process that may take months to years. How then is the infant kept safe from infectious diseases while it slowly builds up a defense system of its own? Well, you’ve probably guessed the answer by now, it’s breast milk. A more precise answer would be the antibodies found in breast milk. Through breastmilk, especially the first breastmilk after childbirth (known as colostrum), a mother shares with her child a certain immunity she has built over time from exposure to several kinds of pathogens and diseases. This gifted immunity serves as a launchpad from which the growing infant slowly builds up a complex immune system of its own.

Also, gut bacteria play an important role in boosting immunity in infants. There are millions of these tiny organisms in humans, even at birth. Researchers have found that the size of the community of bacteria a baby is exposed to during the early parts of life goes to determine the level of immunity they build. Hence, the larger the microbes they're faced with the greater their chances of survival in childhood and adolescence. Breastmilk promotes the growth of useful gut bacteria, which further protects the infant from invading organisms.

Antibodies present in Breast Milk

Antibodies (also called immunoglobulins) are formed from a group of cells found in the blood known as white blood cells or leucocytes. These antibodies are usually formed when there is an attack on the body's immune system. They can be transferred from mother to child through breastmilk. Antibodies reduce the risk of infections in breastfed children and protect the child during those crucial early months when they are most vulnerable.

Advantages of Breastfeeding

There are many advantages to breastfeeding a baby. Most of these are associated with boosting the baby's immunity against infections. Research on the effect of breastmilk on infants has emphasized the need for a strict breastfeeding regimen. The World Health Organization suggests a minimum of six months of exclusive breastfeeding for all newborns.

A breastfeeding mother transfers antibodies from her body to the breastfed baby. These are antibodies developed over time against infections she had had in the past or at present. Also, the colostrum plays an enormous role in stimulating a baby's immune system to develop amongst other benefits, some of which are discussed below.

  • Reduces the risk of Diabetes Several research reports have pointed to the effects of breastmilk in reducing the risk of Diabetes Mellitus, especially Type 2 Diabetes. Breastfed infants tend to grow into adulthood with fewer instances of developing Diabetes. Some evidence has linked this occurrence to the fact that breastfed children are hardly obese.

  • Lowers chances of respiratory tract illness Studies have it that exclusively breastfeeding a child for the first six months of birth improves their chances of upper respiratory tract problems. In other studies on breastfed infants, the chances of contracting flu were reduced by up to 30 percent. This is probably due to antibodies from a mother who has had a cold, flu, or respiratory tract illness in the past.

  • Protection against intestinal infections IgA, an antibody abundant in colostrum, plays a major role in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal walls as well as in cultivating the right amount of gut bacteria. In babies who aren't breastfed, this protection isn't strong enough, and minor exposure to hazards can bring about significant gut problems. In addition, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months might helps to boost overall gastrointestinal health during infancy and prevent the occurrence of certain conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease in the future.

  • Lowers the risk of leukemia in childhood Leukemia is a disease of white blood cells affecting the general immune system. However, according to several studies, this disease occurs only to a small degree in children who were breastfed in the first six months of birth. This goes to show a greater chance of survival of more than 15% in breastfed children than the ones who aren't.

  • Allergies are kept all bay An allergy is simply an abnormally exaggerated immune response. The probability of developing allergies is greatly reduced in breastfed children, probably due to small amounts of IgA and IgE activity in that regard. Also, skin and respiratory allergens seem to be suppressed in these infants unlike in their counterparts who don't get breastfed.

  • Reduces the changes of obesity Obesity is an underlying factor in the causes of many diseases, for example cardiovascular, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. The risk of becoming obese later in life is highly reduced in breastfed infants, especially after more than four months of exclusive breastfeeding.

Bottom line

Indeed, breastfeeding a child brings greater benefits to both mother and child than the comfort of not doing so. Breast milk contains the necessary nutrients and protection to keep a child healthy, even through adulthood. In essence, it may be a child's first grasp at good old-fashioned vaccination against infections and illnesses. You would like to avoid the costs of hospitalization, and rather bask in the joy of raising a happy, healthy child just by offering them the first gift of breast milk.

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