Breastfeeding and Immunity: What You Need to Know

Breastmilk is a wonderful thing. Not only does it feed your baby and provide him with the right amount of nutrients, but it also gives him or her protection against diseases. During the last three months of pregnancy, mothers start passing on antibodies to their child through the placenta, in a process called passive immunity. Antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, are proteins that the immune system develops to fight and destroy harmful invaders or antigens like disease-causing parasites, viruses, and bacteria, as well as cell changes such as those caused by cancer cells.

How the immune system works

The immune system works like a force made up of cells and tissues constantly patrolling the body. It knows if a foreign body or antigen has entered the body, and when this happens, it activates an immune response.

White blood cells multiply and get rid of the antigens. One kind of white blood cell, called B lymphocytes, produce antibodies that attach onto the antigens and identify these as a target for T lymphocytes.
T lymphocytes, another kind of white blood cell, will then kill the affected cells or
stimulate the B lymphocytes to make more antibodies. It’s important to understand that the level of immunity will vary from person to person. Some will have a stronger immune system than others.

Mothers will be able to pass their own antibodies through their unborn child through passive immunity. Just how many and what kind of antibodies are passed on will depend on the pathogens the mom has been exposed to.

Breastmilk and immunity

Mothers not only pass on immunity through pregnancy but through their breast milk, which also has antibodies.

Apart from being packed with a baby’s first nutritional needs such as vitamins and minerals, proteins, fats, and lactose, breast milk is also packed with antibodies, amino acids, prebiotics, enzymes, fatty acids, and disease-fighting white blood cells, among others.

Your very first breastmilk, known as colostrum, will be thick and will have a yellow or orangey tinge. Colostrum essentially has the same composition as your milk later on, but the percentages of its components will be different. What’s amazing about colostrum is that it has higher levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, white blood cells, antibodies, carbohydrates and proteins.

Although mothers won’t have a lot of colostrum, it’s still perfect as newborn’s first food as it’s highly concentrated, just right for the newborn’s tiny stomach. It comes with a rich amount of antibodies called “secretory immunoglobulin” or IgA, which protects the baby’s mucous membranes in the baby’s respiratory and digestive tracts. Colostrum also has a high dose of white blood cells, activating the development of the child’s immune system. As your milk matures, its composition changes, and will even adjust to your own body’s response to sickness. As your body creates antibodies when you are ill, these will become part of your milk.

Breastfeeding during the pandemic

With the COVID-19 health crisis affecting the world, breastfeeding mothers have expressed concern over how to best nurse their babies. Thankfully, there’s no evidence yet that a pregnant woman diagnosed with COVID-19 can pass on the virus to her unborn child.

What’s clear is that mothers need to practice good hygiene at all times. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund or UNICEF, mothers should practice what it calls its “three Ws”:

1) Wash their hands before and after touching their baby, 

2) wear a face mask, and

3) wipe and disinfect surfaces regularly. In the event that a mother gets sick with COVID-19, she should consult her doctor if she develops a fever, shortness of breathing, or cough. If she’s still able to do so, she should continue breastfeeding. If she’s too sick to breastfeed, she should try to express her milk and ask the help of a non-infected family member to feed the milk to the baby with a clean cup or a clean spoon. Whoever’s feeding the baby must also naturally observe the three Ws.

The World Health Organization notes that if expressing is not possible, the mother should consider donated human milk or even formula milk, assuming it is stored, prepared, and fed in the proper manner.

Could breastmilk treat COVID-19?

While there’s not enough research yet to indicate that a mother with COVID-19 can develop corresponding antibodies in her breast milk, the experiments conducted by Dr. Rebecca Powell, assistant professor of medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, have been promising.

Powell has called out to healthy lactating mothers who have or are suspected to have COVID-19 to get in touch with her and send their frozen breast milk. The disease expert has been finding COVID-19-specific antibodies in breast milk, which she hopes can be purified and used to treat severe cases of the virus in babies and hopefully in adults as well.

This just goes to show that no matter how extraordinary the circumstances may be, there’s still no replacement for a mother’s milk. It’s still the best way to keep babies healthy and with a strong immunity to help him or her combat the threat of a serious disease. Happy breastfeeding and stay safe.


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