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2019 Research - Breastfeeding offers life-long protection to infections

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Breast milk is capable of achieving the one thing a vaccine can never do - provide protection!  Breast milk has an incredible microbial diversity, it contains over 700 different types of healthy bacterial species that support our immune system and assist in the fight against foreign invaders. The milk's microbiome helps colonise the newborn's gut, priming the immune system and modulating neonatal immunity. In 2018 researchers discovered yet another beneficial cell in human breast milk which was published in JAMA pediatrics. It was well known that breast milk contained numerous benefits but this was possibly the first time these new cells, called innate lymphoid cells (ILC's) were discovered. They work as our front line of defence against invaders and play an important role in the inflammatory pathways, immunity and tissue homeostasis. The scientists from Augusta University suggested, "Milk ILCs may impart innate immunity in newborns. The next step is to investigate how they shape neonatal immunity and microbiome."


Fast forward to May 2019 where researchers from the University of Birmingham have put the missing piece of the puzzle together. The ILCs offer long-term breastfeeding-acquired immunity against disease! For decades scientists have attributed breast milk's immune benefits to the antibodies present. These antibodies wane over time and it was assumed that immunity was temporary, declining as antibody titres dropped. But the new discovery has challenged this preconceived notion. Published in Science Advances, researchers found that the transfer of immunity via breastfeeding extends far beyond the breastfeeding years, and this immunity is completely independent of the transfer of antibodies. The research found that mice with maternal helminth infection prior to conception transferred lifelong immunity to their pups.


"This is the first demonstration that infection prior to pregnancy can transfer life-long cellular immunity to infants," said the paper's corresponding author William Horsnell.

One very important concept that has not received media attention is the antibody theory. The efficacy of vaccination relies on the premise that the presence of antibodies is evidence that immunity has been conferred. If antibody titres are not detected it is assumed that immunity has not been acquired. However, this current helminth research lends further evidence to the argument that immunity does not rely solely on antibodies. The Antibody Deception covers the great misconceptions, discussing the shortfalls in the antibody theory.


More importantly the helminth study emphasises the significance of natural exposure to diseases, as nature intended. Back in 1916, The Americal Journal of Public Health published an interesting article on diphtheria infections. In one statement researchers attributed diphtheria immunity to maternal infection suggesting the transfer of immunity may have been hereditary:


" These striking facts are additional proofs that there are factors, possibly hereditary in character, which in the absence of infections with C diphtheria , give rise to the presence of the so-called natural antitoxin."
"The physical and the chemical characteristics of the antitoxin present in persons who had never had diphtheria appear to be identical with those of the antitoxin produced by active immunization. "

The new discovery of ILCs supports the suspected hereditary immune benefits mentioned above. One cannot over emphasise the importance of breastfeeding and formula cannot replicate nature's perfection.


Breast milk protects against a host of vaccine non-preventable diseases.

According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, breastfeeding offers a long-lasting protective effect against invasive haemophilus influenzae infection (like haemophilus influenzae meningitis). The research showed a dose-response relationship - the longer one breastfeeds, the longer the protection.


A Study published in the Annals of Tropical Paediatrics International Child Health found significant concentrations of specific IgG and IgA antibodies to Bordetella pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type b, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Neisseria meningitidis in breast milk, further highlighting the protective effect.


Breast milk even protects against rotavirus, in fact it is so effective that researchers are concerned that the breast milk may inhibit the effect of the rotavirus vaccine!

An article in The Journal of Pediatrics addresses the anti-poliomyelitic properties found in colostrum and breast milk. Mice who had been exposed to polio virus type 2 passed on immunity to their pups through their milk. These circulating  antibodies with anti-poliomyelitic properties, which were found in higher concentration in the mother's colostrum, were capable of neutralizing polio virus in 85% of cases up to a week postpartum and in 65% of cases up to a year postpartum.


Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a cause of morbidity and mortality in infants, yet in vitro studies suggest that human milk oligosaccharides, found in breast milk, may reduce maternal and infant colonisation of this bacteria and hence decrease the incidence of invasive GBS disease. These findings are discussed in Clinical and Translational Immunology.


It is undeniable that breast milk helps build a formidable immune system, by embracing this brilliance we set a solid foundation for future health and we, as a community, have a responsibility to new mothers as the key to successful breastfeeding is support. Pregnancy and birth preparation should focus on breastfeeding and provide beneficial interventions such as chiropractic or homeopathic support. Employers should offer a year paid maternity leave and postpartum visits should be encouraged so new mothers have access to trained lactation professionals during this time. We owe it to our children to nurture this gift and offer them the best start in life with natures nourishment. There are options for the small percentage that are unable to breastfeed, donar milk could be considered, a wet nurse could be employed but formula should be an absolute last resort, it cannot possibly replace the wonders of human milk.


New mothers are at a vulnerable stage of their journey, both emotionally and physically, the daily demands on modern woman are overwhelming and these stressors affect milk supply. The sacred postpartum period should be treasured, mothers need more recognition and with the right support we can turn their breastfeeding experience into a positive one.


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