05/27/2013 02:05 EDT | Updated 07/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Breast Milk: Fights Off Infection While Feeding Babies


Back in the 1980s, before the ever-popular Got Milk campaign, the milk industry focused on the benefits of milk consumption in children and adolescents with an advertising blitz featuring the slogan, "Milk: it does the body good." Even today, the milk industry continues to promote milk, especially lactose free varieties, as a healthy choice for the adult body. But milk cannot be given to the youngest amongst us, infants and toddlers. The components are simply not as well tolerated and can lead to deficiencies.

Yet, there exists a milk alternative for these youngsters that could advertise itself using a similar slogan: "Breast Milk: it does the baby good."

The promotion of breastfeeding is a major focus of international attention and for good reason. Studies in the last 20 years have revealed that breast milk can help to reduce inflammation, help to develop the immune system and even form a proper microbiome. Now this week, a team from The University of Western Australia published a paper that revealed how breast milk is not only a great source of nutrition, but also may help to fight off infections. The study also opened the door to an interesting revelation of how germs can help the baby develop properly.

The team, led by Dr. Foteini Hassiotou explored the immunological nature of breast milk when both mother and infant were healthy, as well as when one or the other was suffering from an infection. They found that the immune cells, known as leukocytes, tended to be low in breast milk during healthy times, but surged in number when either the mother or the infant suffered from an infection. In a related study last year, a group out of the Bnai Zion Medical Center in Israel found similar increases when only infants were infected.

The results by themselves may seem unremarkable. But, when combined with other information revealed this year concerning the nature of milk during maternal infection, an unperceived quality of breast milk is revealed.

Several infections can occur in the mother during breastfeeding ranging from simple gastrointestinal discomfort to more serious infections, including mastitis. This systemic infection of the mother is common and can leave the mother with flu like symptoms as well as exhaustion. A team of researchers from Showa University of Medicine in Tokyo, and another from The University of Idaho, studied the composition of breast milk during this infection and found that it changed dramatically. While much like Hassiotou's findings, there was an increase in immunological molecules, there was also a change in nutritional content, with higher levels of sodium and fats. When the infection was treated, the milk returned to normal. In essence, the baby was given the opportunity to react to an infection without actually being afflicted by one.

Together, the findings of these studies show that breast milk, in addition to being a source of nutrients, also acts as both sentry and drill sergeant for the developing immunological army in the child. If there is an infection in the baby, the breast milk acts to prime an immune response and help to fight off any intruders. But when the mother is infected, breast milk helps to prime the infant by providing a 'dry run'. The mother battles while the baby learns.

While breastfeeding continues to gain scientific backing, this does not mean that it is the only choice. Thanks to the research that has taken place, there are great advancements in the use of donor milk and formula to ensure the health of the growing infant. One study showed the use of normal human milk in very low birthweight infants was actually inferior to the use of formula and donor milk. Another investigation found that both donor milk and formula have the ability to help both fight off infections and also improve proper growth.

These advances are well needed as pointed out in a recent polling of New York City women who were asked about their opinions on breastfeeding. Only 46 per cent of them intended to exclusively breastfeed; a rate that is similar to other areas of the world.

The debates over how best to feed an infant have been ongoing for decades and there may never be an end. Yet, the more we learn about the complexities of human milk and the breastfeeding practice, the more we can develop novel and more effective means to mimic this as best as possible. In this way, regardless of the feeding means, babies will grow up as healthy as possible.

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