As a new parent, it’s normal for your every instinct to be centered around how to protect your tiny newborn. We test car seats, keep their little bodies covered, slather them with sunscreen, limit their exposure to others, make sure they go to sleep on their backs and vaccinate them. But what we often don’t consider is how we can protect them in terms of proactively boosting their immune systems.
ProMedica lactation consultants and parent instructors Megan Whitacre, MSN, RN-IBCLC, and Megan Schlachter, MSN, RN-IBCLC, department manager, weigh in on how.
Your baby gets a natural boost at birth.
While adults make many antibodies that safeguard us from getting sick, babies are born with immature immune systems. But Whitacre shares the good news that babies get a boost of IgG antibodies from their moms at the end of pregnancy that helps protect infants during their first 6 months of life.
Breastfeeding shares antibodies with your baby.
Breastfeeding provides even more protection for your baby. That’s one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend it exclusively, whenever possible, for at least the first six months. But regardless of how long or how often you breastfeed, remember that any breast milk is a gift for your baby.
Breastmilk contains antibodies called immunoglobulins (IgA, IgG and IgM) that pass along some of your immunity to your child, including coating and protecting your baby’s mucous membranes to keep out bacteria and viruses when they make contact. This is especially helpful considering babies are prone to respiratory infections.
Breastfeeding parents also make specific antibodies for the germs in their environment. While breastfeeding, your baby can better tackle the germs you encounter daily through the immunoglobins you pass on in your breastmilk.
Breastfeeding helps your baby’s gut health.
According to Schlachter, breastmilk contains human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which are sugars your baby can’t digest. These sugars play an important role in setting up your baby’s immune system since they prevent bacteria and viruses from sticking to your baby’s cells. And when germs don’t stick, they often die and can’t make your baby sick.
The HMOs in breastmilk also help your baby’s gut health by feeding the good bacteria while stopping the growth of bad bacteria. And a healthy gut is a foundation for a healthy immune system.
Breastfeeding has benefits now and later.
Breastfeeding offers short- and long-term benefits for your baby’s immunity.
In the First Few Days
Sometimes referred to as “liquid gold,” the milk you produce for the first few days (colostrum) has the highest amounts of antibodies and HMOs. Colostrum also helps babies make white blood cells, which are a crucial part of their immune systems. In fact, Whitacre says, “You can see on X-rays that babies who breastfeed have a larger, more developed thymus gland, which is an immune organ that helps mature the white blood cells.”
While breastfeeding, babies are getting power-packed nutrition that keeps them from getting sick. Breastfeeding children have a decreased risk of:
- Cold and flu.
- Diarrhea and vomiting.
- Ear infections.
- Gut infections.
- Respiratory infections.
Even if your baby gets sick, breastmilk can help them get better. When a breastfeeding parent and baby are exposed to an illness, a mother’s breastmilk adapts, giving your baby new antibodies to fight off the infection.
When young children get an illness often, they have a higher chance of struggling with it when they’re older too. By breastfeeding, you can prevent your child coming down with something repeatedly. People who breastfed as children also have a lower risk for diseases like asthma, obesity, and diabetes.
Educated is best.
The topic of breastfeeding is complex, and there is no single “right way” to feed your baby. Each parent-child relationship is unique.
“But the more you educate yourself, the more confident you’ll be in your body’s ability to do what it’s made to do,” says Whitacre. “It’s also important to remember that you can have all the education out there and still have breastfeeding problems. So, write down your questions and talk to your doctor or lactation consultant.”
“Our job is not to make these decisions for you. It’s to provide education to help you make an informed decision for your family,” says Schlachter. “We’re here to help families reach their breastfeeding goals, whatever they are.”
ProMedica’s lactation consultants are ready to help by phone or by appointment. Call ProMedica’s breastfeeding Warmline at 419-291-4577.