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Breastfeeding: Benefits of Early Exposure to Maternal Antibodies

By Roberta Attanasio

Breastfeeding is the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. Virtually all mothers can breastfeed, provided they have accurate information, and the support of their family, the health care system and society at large. Colostrum, the yellowish, sticky breast milk produced at the end of pregnancy, is recommended by World Health Organization as the perfect food for the newborn, and feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Babies are born ready to learn to breastfeed. During pregnancy a woman’s body gains weight and changes to support breastfeeding. Think of the first months of life as the “fourth trimester” where you and your baby get to know each other. Breastfeeding is part of getting to know yourself and your baby on a whole different level.”

Photo Credit: United States Government

One of the benefits of breastfeeding derives from the influence of breast milk on the gut microbiota — the complex ecological community made up of the trillions of microbes that inhabit the gastro-intestinal tract. This community of microbes is extremely diverse and dynamic — it varies between individuals and it fluctuates according to several factors, as for example age, diet and disease. The gut microbiota colonizes babies at birth, and undergoes many changes during early life. It interacts with the immune system and it drives immune development and maturation from birth.

Bruce German, a food scientist (University of California, Davis), told Michael Pollan at the New York Times “Mother’s milk, being the only mammalian food shaped by natural selection, is the Rosetta stone for all food. And what it’s telling us is that when natural selection creates a food, it is concerned not just with feeding the child but the child’s gut bugs too.”

Results from recent studies indicate that early exposure to secretory IgA contained in maternal milk is important for maintaining a healthy gut microbiota. Secretory IgA is one of the different types of antibody and is a first line of defense in the intestine — it protects us from harmful microbes and toxins. It is also produced in the mammary gland by a specific cell type, the so-called plasma cell, and is a major component of breast milk.

Now, results from a new study published on line (February 3, 2014) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Secretory antibodies in breast milk promote long-term intestinal homeostasis by regulating the gut microbiota and host gene expression) show that the beneficial effects of maternal secretory IgA persist after weaning.

In newborn mice and humans, secretory IgA derives almost entirely from breast milk. However, both mice and humans start producing their own secretory IgA as the immune system matures. The researchers used mice that either did or did not receive maternal secretory IgA in breast milk and found that early exposure of newborn mice to secretory IgA in breast milk led to increased protection against potentially harmful microbes. In addition, these mice had a different composition of the gut microbioma and, later in life, exhibited an altered pattern of expression of certain genes —  genes that, in humans, are associated with intestinal inflammatory diseases.

Thus, the researchers suggest that exposure to secretory IgA derived from maternal milk in the neonatal period helps in protecting against intestinal inflammation later in life.


  • Aaron Peaslee

    I think it’s safe to say that we can all agree that natural breast milk is more beneficial than formula. However, I think we have strayed away from an important aspect of this discussion. What about mothers that either produce tainted milk (such as containing HIV, or high concentrations of Arsenic) or cannot produce enough?

    The FDA advises against purchasing breast mild from other individuals or via the internet. They do suggest if the mother decides to feed the baby breast milk from anyone other than the mother that they should first consult a healthcare provider, and then they should only acquire milk from a milk bank. But even so, they state that there are only a few states that have safely regulations in place. Given the serious potential adverse effect, and if this is what the FDA recommends than how come there is such a lack of regulation?

    The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, the recommended milk bank by the FDA, seems to be one of the few reputable and safe means to acquire human milk for babies, yet it only lists 16 locations in all of North America. I can’t say I know all the statistics on mothers seeking milk from a bank, but it would seem that this is a relatively low number, especially taking into consideration the number of families that live in poverty and may not be able to produce enough healthy milk for their child. For example, in Georgia if a mother were to seek milk from a bank, the closest location is in North Carolina. And this is just for the US, a leading first world country, so we can only imagine limited access, if it is even possible at all, in areas of the world with lesser means.

    There are several courses of action that I think could improve this situation. First and foremost, I think we should establish policy to regulate breast milk that is sold, especially online, or we could find ways to expand the milk banking facilities. Certainly mothers seeking supplemental breast milk should be informed of the potential health risks involved in purchasing milk online. On the more innovative side, I think we should be exploring other ways to enhance formula to make it more comparable to breast milk. Would it even be possible to artificially produce antibodies like IgA that make breast milk so much better? I also wonder is there a way we could isolate IgA from breast milk? It could either then be used by mothers with milk tainted with HIV, or it could be stored and then used as an additive to formula.



  • cns2392

    The debate on whether breast milk or formula is the ideal way to go is as old as man. While I personally think there are pros and cons to both, just just any argument, I think a mother’s breast milk has remarkable characteristics that go above and beyond any formula brand. Natural breast milk has quite the track record for success, as it has been a proven method for nutrients in all mammalian species, not just humans. This article brings to light one very positive aspect of maternal breast milk – antibodies. From birth, it is very important to build up a strong immune system, and the foundation for that comes from one person – mom. Formulas and the like don’t come close to the nutritional benefits of breast milk.

  • xyZee

    As the article and the posts above me have so eloquently stated, breastfeeding is very beneficial for the immunity of the newborn baby. Mainly because the gut has the highest concentration of microbes, secretory IgA is needed. The reason secretory IgA is more important in this case and not another class of antibody is because only secretory IgA can enter the gut. This, along with the IgG that was transferred to the baby through the placenta keeps the baby relatively protected. But i want to remind that this is not enough to ensure the wellbeing of the baby. Vaccines are very important because the mother can only transfer antibodies to her child, and not the memory B cells that can turn into plasma cells to produce antibodies. This is important to consider because antibodies are short lived, but memory cells are not, which is why it is important to vaccinate the baby so they can create their own memory B cells.

    • xyZee

      I wanted to add a note for clarification purposes; the baby actually degrades the antibodies that it receives from its mother within weeks to months, so it is crucial that it receives vaccination so it can start producing memory B cells and thus its own anitbodies when they are needed.

  • Samantha Deochand

    Bruce German’s quote is interesting to think of: “Mother’s milk, being the only mammalian food shaped by natural selection, is the Rosetta stone for all food.” He considers breast milk as the ‘Rosetta stone for all food’ because it provides the basis for which the immune system develops in response to ingested foods, microbes, and toxins. Breast milk contains antibody IgA that helps maintain gut flora. German continues to say that “when natural selection creates a food, it is concerned not just with feeding the child but the child’s gut bugs too.” I wonder how much variation occurs on the variable chain on the antibody IgA found in different mother’s breast milk. If so, does the IgA structure vary depending on the mother’s diet and the mother’s gut microbiota? If the antibody IgA remains constant between different mother’s breast milk, what mechanisms come to play in keeping these variable chains constant across different individuals?

    • xyZee

      I do not believe that the variable regions are constant among mothers that breastfeed their children. Based on the statistical probability being extremely low of any two antibodies not coming from the same plasma cell having the same CDR, i would assume the same probability would exist for billions of mothers that breastfeed.

  • M Brown

    It is a widely accepted fact that breastfeeding plays a vital role in the most healthy development of babies. In addition to prevention of intestinal inflammation, statistics published by the National Resources Defenses Council detail that breastfeeding prevents several other diseases and disorders in the developing baby and later in life. There has been an overwhelming shift in the number of mothers that choose to breastfeed. But with articles that display breastfeeding awareness, more mothers will become privy to the enumerable benefits of protecting their baby. Forming the immune system of a baby sets the tone for a healthy immune system later in life. Healthy immune systems lead to healthier individuals by training the body on how to deal with invasive microorganisms.

    Providing babies with antibodies that enrich the babies present and future health can shape the future population. With more and more chronic disorders that are becoming epidemics today, attempts to prevent such devastating diseases should be made at all costs. Breastfeeding decreases likelihood of diabetes, obesity, and respiratory issues. Thus providing babies with this level of protection can influence upcoming generations and defy the statistics of present day American health.

    Benefits of breastfeeding. (2005, March 25). Retrieved from http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/benefits.asp

  • Christine

    I have learned long ago how breast feeding was important because of how it help in providing nutrients to babies.I have also learned how breast milk not only has had benefits for babies but also for mothers’ health as well. According to Women’s Health services,it has been found that breast milk can help in lowering the risk of women getting breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression. In my microbiology class, I actually learned that due to its benefits, breast milk have actually had a rise in popularity to the point that people are selling, buying, or donating breast milk online. One must ask is this really safe? Will it still have the nutrients and necessary antibodies needed for the baby? What do you think? In my opinion I think it dangerous because the milk being donated could contain an infectious disease like HIV, or hepatitis causing the baby harm but in a way I understand the importance of wanting to donate milk to help mothers who cannot breastfeed their child. Although I do feel like there should be proper screening done before milk is put up for donation.
    One thing I also read in this article that I found interesting was how IgA help in containing a healthy gut microbiota which in return help in protecting the body from harmful microbes. In an article I read the gut microbiota has also been found to possibly help in losing weight when change. The article discusses the possible role of the composition of gut microbiota to obesity. It is a very interesting article and which I recommend for reading. For me in reading this article it made me wonder if obesity is connected to breastfeeding somehow. Are babies who do not get the proper secretory IgA in breast milk not only are at risk for inflammatory disease due to change in their gut microbiota gut but also obesity or is it a separate issue?


  • ankovalli

    Breastfeeding is very important in the early childhood immunity of a baby because the baby has no other immunity as it gets exposed to microbes. The vaginal canal of mothers harbors pathogens because it’s an opening to the body that microbes can get to. When babies are delivered, they have to pass through this canal and get exposed to microbes for the first time. It is very important for the mother to breastfeed the baby so she can offer the child nutrients as well as antibodies to help fight off microbes. The baby also has IgG antibody present in the body passed down by the mother’s placenta. However, just IgG is not enough in helping to protect the child from all the pathogens present around the baby. It is very important for the mother to breastfeed the child so the child has more antibodies in the body to help protect it. However, one question comes up in the minds of many women including myself. How long should a mother breastfeed the baby, so as to give it the maximum benefits? I know many women want to protect their babies but also don’t want to breastfeed for long periods of time.

    • Sara Eisen

      I really liked how you started off with the first exposure to pathogens. Many the commentors, including myself, didn’t think of the birthing process. You are completely right, the moment a baby comes out and while coming out they are already exposed, and have nothing to defend them from this exposure. That’s where the breast milk comes in; the mother is now providing those defenses to them.

      Also I noticed your question about how long a woman should breastfeed. I did a comment on how breast milk benefits babies, but also mothers. It is stated that a mother should breastfeeding for at least 6 months. A breast fed baby is better protected than a formula baby, this includes later in life as well. I know breastfeeding for 6 months is a long time, but not only will the baby be getting benefits, but the mother is as well.

  • Sara Eisen

    Breastfeeding to boost a baby’s immune system is something that I learned in microbiology, and I thought it was fascinating. I thought how amazing is it that something so simple like breast milk could be so powerful.

    Breastfeeding, like in the article, boosts the immune system, but in an array of ways. Yes, the mother is giving her antibodies and macrophages to help the baby fight infections, but what exactly does this mean? I read an outside article about the many benefits of breast milk, and how it should be encouraged for new mothers to breastfeed for at least 6 months. During it’s infant years, babies are subjected to ear infections and diarrhea, but in breast fed babies the chances of contracting these illnesses decrease. After the infant years, the child is still better protected than formula babies. Some examples include lower chances in being obese, a decrease risk of childhood cancer, lower blood pressure, and fewer psychological problems. By being breast fed, the child has an immune system that started building at an early age which results in a healthier life for the child.

    The article explains only about babies having an extra immunity boost, but mothers also receive benefits as well. The production and delivery of the milk to the baby actually helps the mother’s health as well. A common problem for women is osteoporosis. By breastfeeding the risk is decreased because mineral loss in their bones is replenished after lactating. Also breastfeeding has shown to lower the risk of certain forms of cancer (uterine, endometrial or ovarian cancer). Breast feeding is extremely beneficial for the child, but also has perks for the mother.

    By being breastfed, a child has a better chance for a healthier life. They are given the antibodies they need for their immune system to fight off infections early in their infant years and later into their adult years. Breastfeeding also benefits the mother to a healthy life as well. From the evidence of both this article and the article I found, I believe breastfeeding should be practiced more. The benefits are numerous and allows both the mother and child have a happier and healthier life. I do, however, question what about the mothers who can’t breastfeed? Is formula the only option?

    “Issues: Health.” Benefits of Breastfeeding. N.p., 25 Mar. 2005. Web. 12 Feb. 2014. .

    • Rebecca Park

      I think generally people know that breastfeeding benefits babies but doesn’t know that there are benefits for the mother. As I was reading your post I was wondering what specific benefits mother’s gain from breastfeeding so I looked them up. Oxytocin is produced when the baby continuously suckles on the mother’s breast. Oxytocin is a mammalian neurohypophysical hormone that is secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin has been proven to reduce gastrointestinal inflammation, autoimmune disorders, systemic infections, and also some fungus infections. I think it is interesting to see that breast feeding benefits both babies and the mother’s immune system.

  • Z. Haqqani

    It’s been known for quite a while that there are significant benefits to breastfeeding your baby. It helps establish a bond between the mother and the baby, as well as provides protection for the baby. The recent study, which suggests that the benefits of breastfeeding as an infant carry on with the baby into adulthood, is no surprise. However, I am confused about one thing. Before reading this post, I thought that breastfeeding just gave babies a head-start in obtaining immunity, and that later on non-breastfeeders would catch up since they begin to develop their own IgA soon after birth. Apparently, this is not the case. But, why? Would the later increased levels of IgA and other immunoglobulins not bring the composition of gut microbioma to the same levels as one who was breastfed?

  • Rebecca Park

    Breast milk is truly amazing it protect babies from infections until the babies can protect themselves. I think it is quite interesting how in Africa HIV positive mothers are actually encouraged to breastfeed their child because drinking the breast milk is much safer and beneficial than drinking the water there. From this article mothers should do a double take on formula milk. Development for a newborn is very important and in addition to the benefits of IgA there was a study done indicating babies that drink breast milk have a faster boost in their immune system compared to the babies that drink formula milk. Thus babies that breast feed will have higher amounts of antibodies that respond to immunization compared to babies that don’t. Other studies show that babies who breastfeed has a lower chance of getting an UTI and have more fibronectin. Fibronectin is a glycoprotein that is important for healing wounds, cell adhesion, and embryonic development.

  • Amina Bouhamed

    Living at a time where the biggest news we hear about breast feeding is how inappropriate it is to do it in public, people often overlook the benefits of it all together. There are so many advertisements out there about baby formula and how it’s good for infants and have the same benefits, but it’s all business really. Just like any products out there in the market, they must be filled with contaminants that could harm infants later in life. It is important to publicize that formula tries to mimic some nutritional values found in breast milk, but it cannot replicate the essentials that are found sorely in mammalian milk. It is something that was naturally selected to fit our bodies and microbe system, as the article states. Nothing man-made can really stand a chance compared to something naturally made. It’s even beneficial for the mother to breastfeed because according to studies, women who breastfeed have a less chance of acquiring uterine, endometrial or ovarian cancer. Also it helps mothers lose weight faster after birth as well as serves as a natural contraceptive so that women don’t get pregnant too soon after giving birth. Both mother and child benefit from this natural act of feeding, we just need to learn about it and teach it to those that aren’t aware of these crucial facts.


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