This past January Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin announced the The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. Due to mounting evidence of breastfeeding’s myriad health benefits she declared its promotion a national priority. Indeed, most people have heard about the passage of immunities from mothers to their breastfed infants, but few parents have been informed that formula-fed babies are at higher risk for developing lower respiratory infections, asthma, atopic dermatitis, obesity, necrotizing enterocolitis, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). In fact, the Surgeon General estimates that if 90% of mothers breastfed exclusively for 6 months, nearly 1,000 deaths among infants could be prevented annually!1
What is it about breast milk that provides such a boost to babies’ health? Researchers are still working to answer this question. We know that newborns take approximately 6 months to develop their immune system, making them incredibly vulnerable to disease. During the first 10 days of life, a breastfed newborn ingests colostrum, a yellowish fluid known as “first milk,” and breast milk, both of which contain more infection-fighting white cells (also known as leukocytes) per milliliter than there are in the same volume of blood. Macrophages and neutrophils are types of white blood cells that comprise approximately 90% of the leukocytic load, and their job is to engulf and absorb harmful bacteria. The remaining 10% of these disease-fighting cells are lymphocytes, primarily T-cells and B-cells, which identify and eliminate invaders while developing antibodies in the newborn. These lymphocytes produce Secretory IgA, which protect the newborn against environmental exposures and interferon, an antiviral substance. Mother’s immunoglobulins (IgA, IgG, IgM and IgD) are also found in breast milk, and they protect babies from pathogens by coating the superficial layers of the intestines and other mucosal surfaces that serve as points of entry into baby’s body.2
Gut ecology is of special interest to those in the field of functional pediatrics because a healthy gut is typically indicative of over all health. Research has shown that approximately 75-80% of immune function originates in the gastrointestinal tract. Breastfed babies receive beneficial bacteria from the bifidus family that produce Gram-positive bacilli in the gut flora and discourage the multiplication of pathogens. In contrast, babies who consume cow’s milk formula develop Gram-negative (potentially pathogenic) bacilli. We know that complex sugars in breast milk help to feed the bifidus strains of beneficial bacteria in the infant’s gut. Just last year researchers at UC Davis revealed that these same complex sugars are not digestible and mimic the surfaces of other cells. This surface similarity encourages viruses and bacteria to dock with the indigestible complex sugars and not the infant’s gut cells, and this allows babies to flush out viruses and bacteria from their bodies!3
Breast milk has had approximately 200 million years of mammalian evolution to develop systems to protect the most vulnerable members of the species. GetzWell Pediatrics supports the Surgeon General’s initiative and acknowledges that whenever possible “breast is best.” We are a Breastfeeding Friendly Business and have a host of resources available to support breastfeeding mothers. If families are unable to breastfeed, we are also prepared to provide individualized supplement programs to best protect their children.
To learn more about the benefits of breast milk and/or breastfeeding alternatives, give us a call at 415.826.1701. We also invite you to check out our previous post on how breastfeeding reduces risk of fever after vaccines.
2 Varney, Helen, et al. Varney’s Midwifery: Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Inc. 2004.
3 Wade, Nicholas. “Breast Milk Sugars Give Infants a Protective Coat.” New York Times. August 2, 2010.