Human Milk: What Every Baby’s Body Needs

Human milk has everything a baby’s body needs—a perfect blend of calories, nutrients, and antibodies. Parents looking to protect their child from asthma are urged to breastfeed. Parents hoping to keep their preemie from developing necrotizing enterocolitis (a life-threatening gastrointestinal infection) are encouraged to breastfeed.

And while there’s no guarantee that your breastfed child will be disease free, research shows that the odds are in her favor. In addition to protecting your child against common illnesses (such as ear infections or diarrhea), breastfeeding can also reduce her risk of obesity, cancer, diabetes, pneumonia, hypertension, urinary tract infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and a myriad of other acute and chronic diseases.

Although many of the ingredients in breast milk are yet to be determined, scientists are getting closer to understanding how human milk protects. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center recently discovered that breast milk supports the growth of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that aid in the absorption of nutrients and boost immune system development.

One drop of human milk contains more than one million white blood cells—germ eaters called macrophages. Human milk gets its immune boosting properties from antibodies—special proteins that coat the lining of the intestinal tract and keep germs from getting through. The presence of antibodies explains why human milk is referred to as a baby’s first immunization. After all, antibodies are made to order. When babies are exposed to germs in the environment, moms produce antibodies specific to those germs. These protective antibodies are passed from a mother to her baby via mom’s milk. Usually when a mother gets sick, her baby has already been exposed to the germs that cause the infection. In addition to white blood cells and antibodies, human milk contains over 100 oligosaccharides—non-digestible sugars that attach to germs in the baby’s intestinal tract and keep them from causing infection. So truly the best protection a mother can give her baby is to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible.