By Jane Sheppard
Benefits of Breastfeeding for the Developing Immune System
The importance of breastfeeding cannot be overstated in building a strong immune system. Breastmilk is much more than food. In addition to providing the absolute best nutrition for a growing body, breastmilk supplies the factors needed to develop the immune system and protect your baby against disease. Breastfeeding also adds the loving touch and comfort that is crucial to the growth and well being of your baby.
Developing a Healthy Immune System
Although they have some antibodies from the placenta of their mother, newborns enter the world largely unprotected. They are faced with organisms they have never met before. Their immune systems are undeveloped, which leaves them at risk for infections and serious illnesses. An infant produces antibodies efficiently by about six months, but the immune system is not fully developed until it is about four or five years old. This is one of the reasons why it is important to breastfeed your baby for as long as possible. Breastmilk protects against illness and encourages development of the immune system.
Breastmilk contains lymphocytes and macrophages that produce antibodies and other immune factors. It provides lactobacillus bifidus, the “friendly” bacterium that helps prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. Another molecule in breastmilk actually kills harmful bacteria. In addition to providing protection against pathogenic bacteria, breastmilk contains elements that guard against viruses, fungi and parasites. The immunology of breastmilk is quite amazing. Mother Nature definitely knows what she is doing!
It’s baffling that some health professionals believe that there is no benefit from breastmilk to babies after they are six months old! Long-term breastfeeding and natural weaning (letting your child decide when to wean) is by far the healthiest and builds a healthy immune system. Continuing to breastfeed into the preschool years does not make a child dependent on the mother. My daughter decided to quit nursing at age four. This was a gentle, easy transition for her. She is a strong, independent child because she knows she can always get her needs met.
Breastfeeding When You or Your Baby are Sick
Many people also believe that a mother should not breastfeed if she is has a contagious illness. The opposite is true. When you are exposed to a virus, you begin producing antibodies to fight the infection. Some of these antibodies are passed to your baby through your breastmilk so he or she can also fight the virus.
When your baby is sick, it makes sense to nurse him or her more frequently. In addition to providing antibodies, breastmilk is a nourishing calorie-rich fluid, which keeps a baby well hydrated. My daughter intuitively knew to nurse more frequently when she was fighting something off. This frequent nursing managed to keep whatever was trying to invade her body from developing into an actual infection or disease.