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How breast milk helps baby’s immune system

Some people say breastfeeding is a baby’s first immunisation. The early breast milk (colostrum) is thick and full of specialised living cells to give a baby the first big immunological boost which is then continued on an ongoing basis with an established breast-milk supply.

Breastfeeding should not be considered a substitute for immunisation. Babies still need to get immunised.

How breastfeeding helps protect your baby

Breastfeeding sustains the link between the mother’s and baby’s immune systems that was established during pregnancy.

  • During pregnancy, the mother passes antibodies to her baby through the placenta, and these proteins circulate in the infant's blood for weeks to months after birth.
  • Breast-fed infants gain extra protection from antibodies, other proteins and immune cells in human milk.
  • At around four months of age babies will start to produce some of their own antibody protection but the developing immune system is not fully functional until a child is around two years of age.

The immune factors that come from a mother, via her breast milk, to her baby are amazing. Not only do they give a baby protection against a wide range of illnesses but they switch on protective effects in the baby.

They also provide what is called ‘specific environmental protection’. This means that if you are exposed to anything that might make you sick, your body will start making antibodies specific to the threat – which then go straight through your breast milk and into your baby.

An anthropologist named Sarah Blaffer Hrdy once called these antibodies ‘specialised prescriptions’, which describes this almost magical process very well.

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