Health,  Science

Breastfeeding regulates the immune system and improves babies’ health

By Roberta Attanasio

As long as there have been babies, there have been breastfeeding mothers, providing infants with basic, essential nutrition. But for a surprisingly long time, there have also been baby bottles, used to feed infants when mothers couldn’t. ‘We talk about the golden age where everybody breastfed, and that age never happened,’ says Suzanne Barston, author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why it Shouldn’t.”

Breastfeeding—Madame Mitoire with her children, by Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Madame Mitoire with her children, by Adelaide Labille-Guiard. Public Domain

Although the way we feed babies should not define motherhood, and mothers should decide what works best for them in their own situation, it is well established that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival. According to the World Health Organization, “Breastmilk is the ideal food for infants. It is safe, clean and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses. Breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life. Breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be overweight or obese and less prone to diabetes later in life. Women who breastfeed also have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.” 

Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma, obesity, autoimmune diseases and other disorders of the immune system later in life—compared to those who are exclusively formula fed. But why is breastfeeding so adept to positively influence babies’ health? Most likely, there are several biological mechanisms at play. One of them, recently discovered, involves a specific type of immune cells, the so-called regulatory T cells. The study shows that—in breastfed human babies—regulatory T cells expand in the first three weeks of life and are nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies.

For the study, researchers collected small amounts of blood and stool samples from 38 healthy mothers and their healthy babies at birth and then later when the babies were three weeks old. Sixteen out of the 38 babies were exclusively breastfed for the duration of the study, while nine babies received mixed feeding, and 13 babies were exclusively formula-fed.

The researchers evaluated the data obtained by analyzing the samples, and found that in breastfed infants regulatory T cells expand in the first three weeks of life and are nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies. They also found that regulatory T cells control the baby’s immune response against maternal cells transferred with breastmilk, thus helping to reduce inflammation. In addition, they discovered that Veillonella and Gemella—bacteria that support the function of regulatory T cells—are more abundant in the gut of breast-fed babies.

Senior author Gergely Toldi said: “We hope this invaluable new insight will lead to an increase in rates of breastfeeding and will see more babies benefit from the advantages of receiving breastmilk. Furthermore, we hope for those babies who are formula fed, these results will contribute to optimizing the composition of formula milk in order to exploit these immunological mechanisms.”

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One Comment

  • Pravin Samal

    This article by Dr. Roberta Asstansio is fascinating and highlights the importance of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to improve the infant’s immune system and overall health. I find this article intriguing and helpful because it provides the many benefits obtained through breastfeeding based on scientific findings. For example, it was found that breastfeeding builds up infants’ immune systems by expanding regulatory T cells in the babies and making them perform better on an intelligence test. Breastfeeding is also shown to help mothers by decreasing the risk of ovarian and breast cancers.

    Upon further research on this topic, I came across the article titled “Does Breastfeeding Shape Food Preferences? Links to Obesity.” This article focused on the children’s food preferences later in life based on if they were breastfed or formula-fed. The study finds out that infants who were breastfed are more likely to follow a healthy diet later in life than infants who were formula-fed. It is because the preference for the flavors is transmitted from mother to child through the amniotic fluid and breastmilk fed during early infancy. This article also points out the importance of the first two years of an infant’s life because this time is a critical window to make efforts to prevent obesity later in their life. The first two years are also when a transition from ingesting only milk to solid foods occurs in an infant’s life.

    I believe that breastfeeding is one of the most, if not the most, meaningful ways to help babies reach their full potential in terms of better health and intelligence. I highly encourage and advise all mothers to breastfeed their babies if possible because it will significantly help them later in their life. It will help them make their immune system highly powerful and help them be physically fit/healthy by shaping their food preferences to a more nutritious diet.


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