Human Milk – First vaccination for your babyDr. Kuldeep Singh
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Did you know, during the last trimester of pregnancy, a baby absorbs antibodies from the mother?
Newborn babies look delicate and fragile and while they may have developed physically, their immune systems are still a work in progress. For example, if the mother has had chickenpox, the antibodies for this will be passed onto the baby. This gives them passive immunity which is temporary in nature. It will not be until the baby is 2 or 3 months old that their immune system will mature and start producing antibodies of its own. Until then, the baby is dependent on antibodies contained in breastmilk. For this reason, human milk can be considered a baby’s first vaccination.
Colostrum and its role in immunity
The first human milk expressed by a lactating mother is known as colostrum. This has a different appearance and composition as compared to mature breastmilk. White blood cells make up around two-thirds of the colostrum. These cells protect the baby from infections and challenge pathogens. They are particularly useful in fighting diarrhea and stomach upsets.
Colostrum also contains an antibody known as slgA. This lines the baby’s gastrointestinal tract and respiratory system to protect the baby against infections that the mother’s body has already developed antibodies for.
Regular breastfeeding for continued immunity
Along with essential nutrients, breastmilk contains a number of antibodies. These antibodies provide the baby continued passive immunity until the baby’s own immune system can mature. The baby receives antibodies to diseases that the mother has suffered from earlier as well as antibodies produced to fight current threats. That said, you must note that human milk alone cannot protect a baby from life threatening diseases such as polio, measles, diphtheria, etc. For protection against such diseases, vaccination is a must.
Probiotics in human milk and their role in building immunity
Breastmilk also contains fats, proteins, and probiotics. The immune system develops in the gut and hence probiotics play a crucial role in helping develop strong immunity levels. These probiotics feed and nurture good bacteria and help them multiple to build a strong foundation for the immune system.
Environment specific immunity
You can breastfeed your baby even if you have a cold or flu. In fact, this can help protect your baby from similar infections. The composition of breastmilk is dynamic and changes according to the baby’s requirements. When you fall ill, your body produces antibodies to fight this infection. These antibodies are passed on to the baby as well and since you and your baby are in close proximity, it is likely that both of you will be exposed to the same pathogens. Thus, giving your baby human milk protects him/her from seasonal flus and infections. This is one of the biggest advantages of breastmilk over commercial baby formula.
From the very first feed, human milk is rich in immunity-boosting antibodies. Until your baby’s immune system is mature enough to fight infections on its own, this is just what’s needed to protect your little one. However, breastfeeding isn’t always easy.
If your body does not produce enough breastmilk, consider donor milk as an alternative or supplement to your own breastmilk. Donor milk refers to breastmilk that has been expressed and frozen by other lactating mothers. It is the next best thing to your own breast milk and more nutritious and protective than any type of baby formula. So, don’t shy away from asking for help and remember, human milk is the best gift for your baby.