If you’re anything like me, pregnancy is a time of perpetual daydreaming, envisioning the overwhelming joy that’s around the corner and what it’s going to be like to finally hold this new being in your arms; your mind and heart positively bursting with all your well-intentioned plans to keep him or her healthy and happy for the rest of time.
And if you’re passionate about natural health, your list likely includes a variety of strategies, supplements, and products to help you bring your child into the world in a peaceful, gentle, and healthy way. But what if I told you that one of the most important and effective things you can do for your baby’s lifelong health and immunity is something that is completely natural and totally free? And if it's an option for you—and once you get the hang of it—it's one of the most intuitive, beautiful processes you’ll ever take part in? You guessed it: I’m talking about breastfeeding.
How a tiny microbiome reinforced my determination to breastfeed.
Like many moms, I planned to have the perfect home birth when I was expecting my son: gentle and undisturbed, followed immediately by effortless breastfeeding and hours of skin-to-skin contact. It’s amazing how quickly plans can change. My water broke at 27.5 weeks and by 29.5 weeks, it was time to deliver my breech baby boy via emergency C-section. And suddenly, instead of quietly nursing my newborn son at home in my bed post-birth, I found myself lying (utterly exhausted and worried) in a hospital recovery room as he was whisked off by nurses and doctors.
When I learned that babies born preterm are often at risk of immune disturbances, I was more determined than ever to breastfeed, and I began hand expressing immediately to tell my body that it was time to make milk. In those early days I delivered every milliliter of "liquid gold" that I could to my sweet little boy. We spent the next 64 days in the NICU as he learned to suckle—it wasn’t the breastfeeding path I had anticipated, but I learned a few things along the way that made it impossible for me not to do everything in my power to offer the miracle medicine of breast milk to my tiny little human and his immune system.
What breast milk really has to do with immunity.
Breast milk is packed with brain-boosting essential fatty acids, bodybuilding vitamins and minerals, hormones, growth factors, and a plethora of proteins and carbohydrates for rapid development but also contains an abundance of immunological factors that work both to protect your baby from harmful viruses and bacteria and to modulate and develop your baby’s immune system. Although they all work in different ways (some are anti-inflammatory while others are antimicrobial) many factors combine to make breast milk an immune-boosting, baby-friendly cocktail of immunoglobulins (like SIgA), cytokines, lactoferrin, enzymes (like lysozyme), leukocytes, probiotics, and prebiotics.
But that’s only scratching the surface! Your milk also has the ability to change and adapt to your baby’s changing age, nutritional needs, and health status—giving them exactly what they need at any given time. How incredible is that? Indeed, studies show that when mom or baby (or both) is suffering from an illness, infection-fighting cells called leukocytes in her milk spike from comprising just 2 percent of total cells in times of health to a whopping 94 percent during sickness, which translates to baby’s daily ingestion of billions of leukocytes to help them get well! Even more amazing? As soon as everyone is healthy again, the leukocytes drop back down to normal levels.
Here’s where it gets really interesting, though: It makes sense that when mom is sick, her breast milk will automatically adapt to protect her nursing child, but what if her baby is the one who’s sick—how does her body know to ramp up her milk’s immune-boosting factors? Scientists theorize that, while suckling, backwash from the baby’s mouth can travel up into the breast, delivering a sort of "custom" order for infection-busting milk. And mom’s body quickly complies! So if you can make breastfeeding work, do it.
Why it's all about the bugs.
We often think of the immune system as some sort of ambiguous series of organs mysteriously floating around in our body, shielding us from all the inhospitable microbes we encounter every day. But the truth is that 80 percent of our immune system resides in our gut, which also hosts another very important, life-supporting, living ecosystem of microbes called the gut microbiome. The microbiome does a lot of things, but its ability to support and modulate your immune system may just be its most important role in your body. So we know that probiotics are a critical component of our immune health, but what do they have to do with your baby’s immune system and breastfeeding?
Seeding your baby's gut.
Before birth, your baby has a nearly sterile gut and an immature immune system, lacking the all-important bacteria that will eventually make up their microbiome. The journey through the birth canal and skin-to-skin contact are your baby’s first (very important) inoculations of all the life-supporting microbes they need for long-term health and immunity, but it turns out that babies get nearly 30 percent of their gut bacteria from breastfeeding!
That’s right, breast milk is full of probiotics that help to seed your baby’s gut and establish their immune system. And we’ve learned that this microbial component of milk is so crucial to a baby’s health that breast milk also contains special sugars called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that selectively feed Bifidobacterium infantis, a powerhouse strain that not only supports brain development and produces folate for baby’s healthy growth, but it supports immune function by nourishing intestinal cells and helping to fill in gaps in the gut barrier.
Why does this matter? A baby’s gut is "open" for the first four to six months of life, which means that they have gaps between their intestinal cells through which anything can pass through to the bloodstream, including toxins, allergens, and harmful bacteria that can ignite immune reactions. The good news? The bacteria in breast milk also has the ability to grow in layers that seal the vulnerable openings. So, not only does breast milk seed your baby’s gut with almost a third of all the friendly flora they need for proper immune system development, but it provides the immune factors your baby needs to stay well while their immune function matures during the first few years of life. If breastfeeding isn't an option, don't despair. There are a lot of other ways to support the development of your baby's microbiome for optimal health and immunity later in life, including lots of physical contact early in life, a probiotic-rich diet, and avoiding harsh soaps and any chemicals that could damage healthy bacteria.
How to nurture your child’s immune system with breast milk.
If you are one of the lucky moms with the option of breastfeeding, think of it as a long-term investment in the health and wellness of your baby—here are some tips to make it the very best, most beneficial experience for you and your little one.
1. Breastfeed exclusively for six months.
While any amount of nursing is better than none at all, providing only breast milk (this means no water, juice, formula, or solid foods) for the first six months is ideal for your baby’s optimal immune system development. Studies show that introducing even just a small amount of formula into your baby’s feeding regimen can negatively alter their delicate microbiome, so do your best to stick with solely breast milk until your baby’s half-birthday, or later, depending on when your child shows interest in solids.
2. Commit to nurse for at least a year (and longer if you can!).
When you’re first starting on your breastfeeding journey, one year may sound like a long time, but the World Health Organization actually recommends two years of continued nursing! This is because your baby’s immune system does a lot of maturing over the first couple of years of life, and the more probiotics and immune factors they can get from your breast milk during that time, the better. Bonus? Breastfed babies are generally more attached and healthier, so you’ll be able to spend more time adventuring and playing with your bundle of joy and less time recuperating from every illness that’s making the rounds. It can also keep the stress of being away from you to a minimum, which can affect your child’s delicate microbial balance.
3. Take care of your own microbiome.
Researchers have discovered that maternal immune cells transport probiotics from mom’s gut microbiome to her mammary glands and into her breast milk, via the enteromammary pathway. This means that your healthy microbiome can be transferred directly to your baby through breastfeeding—now that’s some motivation to take care of your gut! Make sure to take a high-quality, effective probiotic supplement designed for lactating moms, and do everything you can to support your ecosystem of bacteria within, like limiting exposure to antibiotics and antibacterial cleaners and eating a whole-foods diet rich in prebiotics.
Over the last century, breastfeeding practices have changed remarkably—from a standard nine months of exclusive breastfeeding in the early 1900s to serious declines in breastfeeding rates with the advent of formula in the 1920s. Fortunately, breastfeeding rates are on the rise again as doctors, researchers, employers, and health organizations all over the world recognize the absolutely essential role that breast milk plays in lifelong well-being and immunity for moms and babies. Because when it comes to your child’s long-term wellness, immunity is everything.
Today, I’m happy to report that my little one is a healthy and thriving toddler, and I believe breast milk is the common thread in what’s kept him so healthy despite his odds of having a subpar immune system due to his early arrival. Though the process for us was grueling and included many tears, sleepless nights, lactation consultants, and near defeats, I thank my lucky stars that I had this knowledge to fuel my determination because it has forever changed the course of my son’s life.
So, whether you’re a breastfeeding pro or are getting ready to welcome your newest love, know that by choosing to breastfeed, you’re not only empowering and educating other mothers who may not know the benefits of breastfeeding, but you are giving your baby the perfect "elixir of life" with the ideal ingredients their immune system needs for a lifetime of health.