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.”
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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