The Magical Science of Mother’s Milk for Your Child’s Immune System

You’ve heard them before. There are amazing claims made for the nutrition and health benefits of breastfeeding your baby. What’s great is that they’re true.

You’ve heard them before. There are amazing claims made for the nutrition and health benefits of breastfeeding your baby. What’s great is that they’re true.

But most of us don’t know the science behind them. So, here’s a crash course in the almost magical science of breast milk, especially as it relates to establishing a robust immune system.

You may drink a bottle of kombucha or have some yogurt for lunch in order to ingest their probiotics — live cultures of beneficial microorganisms. The last few years have been pretty pro on probiotics, since these tiny beasties help power not just our digestive system, but our immune system, with 80% of our immunity arising from our guts. But those probiotic bacteria need food of their own. And that food is call prebiotics. 

One of the many wonders of breast milk is that it is chock full of prebiotics. There almost 100 specialty sugars called oligosaccharides in mother’s milk. And each mom has her own unique blend of them, amazingly tailored for the child she is nursing.

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A baby needs to develop a vast ecosystem of health-inducing probiotics as quickly as possible in order to live in our pathogen-infested world. But for that ecosystem to be established, those helpful bacteria need your baby’s gut to be full of the foods that’ll nurture them.

As strange as it seems now, for years scientists dismissed these oligosaccharides as mere filler in breast milk. But more recent studies have changed their tune. Instead, as Alaya Ochert of La Leche League International notes, there are at least 90 different oligosaccharides which come in at least 900 different chemical forms in breast milk. Not just filler, they are each specifically targeted to be most useful probiotics for your child’s environment.

What’s amazing about these prebiotics is that they not only promote the right kind of bacteria, but they prevent the wrong kind of bacteria, as well as viruses and other microbes, from finding a home in your child. Get this: They can even prevent viruses that the mother has never been infected by herself. That sounds magical to me.

But that’s not all!

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Mother’s milk contains antibodies to pathogens the mother has been exposed to recently, helping her infant’s new immune system protect itself from local and threatening germs. Along with these antibodies, which are targeted to specific baddies, mom’s milk includes proteins called lactoferrin which are indigestible. Unlike other proteins which are used for food, lactoferrin is purposely passed through the entire digestive system like a health inspector, tossing out harmful microbes, nurturing probiotics, and helping to reduce any inflammation it encounters. Like magic!

Colostrum, the heavier milk produced during the first few days after birth, is particularly full of these and other health-inducing substances. It acts like a kickstarter for the immune system, giving a massive influx of what’s necessary to survive life outside of the womb.

The longer a new mom is able to breastfeed during the first year or two, the more robust her child’s immune system will be. And it’s all done by drinking this specialized cocktail of goodness called breast milk, which mom’s produce without even thinking about. Magically.

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