Breastmilk never ceases to amaze me and it really is fundamental in setting up the future health of a child. It is not just breastmilk that takes a role in this protection but the act of breastfeeding and the exposure to all the pathogens (germs, bacteria and viruses) that the mother is exposed to on her skin known as her microbiome. Mothers and babies are meant to be together in the initial days and weeks while the newborn’s immune system develops. This closeness ensures that the baby will only be exposed to the environment and pathogens that the mother will encounter in order for her to make the antibodies to protect her baby. This blog is the next in the Benefits of Breastfeeding series and will look at the three most prevalent childhood illnesses and how breastfeeding can reduce your baby’s risk.
These are the most common cause of infant illness and are caused by viral pathogens (microorganisms). When your baby or child starts mixing with others in the wider community for instance at nursery, childminder or play group they are exposed to a who
le new set of infants, children and adults and all their pathogens and increasing their risk of getting viruses. It has been found in many studies that breastfeeding is protective against respiratory illnesses  such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia and the longer you breastfeed the greater the protection. It was found that for every month your baby gets breastmilk exclusively reduces their risk by 31% and 27% for partial breastfeeding. The protective benefits wear off soon after weaning from the breast.
So how? Well it’s all to do with the breastfed infant having more bacteria, yes you heard me right bacteria, we humans are made up of 90% bactaria. A study found that breastfed babies have a more diverse microbiome (genetic material consisting of bacteria and viruses) in their mouths and it is thought this protects the respiratory tract and lung tissue . Some of the bacteria have been found to feed the superhero sugars of breastmilk, HMOs’ (Human Milk Oligosaccharides) and in turn these HMOs prevent germs and bacteria sticking to the lining of the lungs.
GASTROENTERITIS AND EAR INFECTIONS:
Following respiratory illnesses, gastroenteritis and otitis media (infection of the inner ear) are the next most prevalent reason for infant/childhood illness. In 2007 the Millennium Cohort study  also found that breastfeeding had a protective impact not only on the respiratory system but on Gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the inner ear. As explained above, the HMO superheroes coat the surface of the gut and the inner ear preventing viral fragments or bacteria attaching to them. There are about 200 named oligosaccharides but there are likely to be 400 or more and some are there specifically to feed good bacteria in the gut. Breastmilk is your baby’s form of Yakult. Formula companies are trying to replicate HMOs synthetically but those they have produced so far are a completely different structure and cannot replicate the HMO of an individual mother’s breastmilk.
Here is where the seeding of the microbiome comes into play again in the importance of setting up the immune system of the newborn . There are thought to be three stages of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL); a genetic mutation in utero, a lack of microbiome exposure and later childhood infections can impact by triggering DNA mutations resulting in this devastating but most common of the childhood cancers ALL . Another reason highlighting the importance of the closeness of mother and baby and their mutual act of breastfeeding.
I hope this has given you an insight into the wonders that are the microbiology of breastmilk and breastfeeding. Tomorrow we will be looking at the importance of breastmilk for the premature baby in preventing the potentially fatal condition Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC).
1. Greaves, M (2018) A casual mechanism for childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Nature Reviews Cancer 18 p471-484. Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41568-018-0015-6 [accessed on 14/5/2020
2. Holgerson, PL, et al (2013) Oral microbial profile discriminates breast-fed from formula-fed infants. J Pediatr Gastroenteral Nutr. 56 (2) p127-136.
3. Moosavi, S, Sepehri, S, Robertson, B, Sears, M, Khafipour, E and Azad, M (2019) Composition and Variation of the Human Microbiota Are Influenced by Maternal and Early-Life Factors. Cell Host & Microbiome. Available from: https://www.cell.com/cell-host-microbe/fulltext/S1931-3128(19)30049-6 [accessed on 14/5/2020]
4. Quigley, M, Kelly, Y and Stacker, A. (2007) Breastfeeding and Hospitalization for Diarrheal and Respiratory Infection in the United Kingdom Millennium Cohort Study. Pediatrics®. 119 (4) p837-842.