Friday, February 10, 2012

Breast Milk for Your Sick Baby

  Last Saturday night, Q-ball exhibited her first signs of the common cold- lots of sneezing and a little coughing. I hoped it was nothing as her demeanor, appetite, and sleeping habits were all pretty normal.  By Sunday night, though, it was clear that we were facing our first sick baby. Fortunately, it was a mild case- mainly just congestion with a reduced appetite for solids.  Her appetite for nursing, however, definitely increased.  Sunday night she literally nursed from 11 pm until 5:30 am.  But, on Monday, she was as full of life as ever, but still rather congested.  Using an eye-dropper, I was able to get a little breast milk up her nose, and I believe that it cleared up some of the stuffiness.  She continued to mainly play with, rather than eat, solids, but showed no diminished interest in breastfeeding.  I believe that breastfeeding helped us ward off sickness until 10 months and ensured that our first illness was as mild as it was.  While I am fairly knowledgeable about the wonders of breast milk, based upon our experiences over the last few days, I wanted to look into some research to answer the following questions:
  1. How does breast milk help prevent illness and heal a sick baby?
  2. Do babies tend to nurse more during illness?  And, if so, why?
  3. How does breast milk clear congestion?
How does breast milk help prevent illness and heal a sick baby?
     I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that this answer involves quite a bit of hard scienceHere, I've taken the hard science and attempted to break it down for the political scientist.
        Mama initially helps strengthen her baby's immune system during gestation.  Through the placenta, she provides her baby with antibodies (a.k.a- immunoglobulin, a protein the immune system uses to attack antigens such as bacteria and viruses.)  After birth, Mama continues to give baby antibodies through her milk.  Researchers have uncovered some ways in which breast milk strengthens a baby's immunity, thereby preventing illness and, should illness occur, hasten healing times.  
    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

       One researcher states breast milk contains "direct acting antimicrobal factors." This might be breast milk's coolest trick (other than inducing sleep...)  Antibodies attack antigens by binding with them (see image), preventing the antigen from attaching to any bodily tissue.  Mama actually produces antibodies specific for her baby.  When she breathes in, eats, or even "catches" bacteria from baby's saliva during a breastfeeding session certain viruses and bacteria in the baby's immediate environment, her body begins to produce the antibodies needed to combat these bad guys.  She then provides baby the same protection through her milk. 
        The antibodies that Mama makes are also specially suited for baby in other ways.  (1) These antibodies know to ignore the "good" bacteria in baby's developing digestive system, but have been found to specifically attack Salmonella, E. coli, poliovirus, and rotavirus, just to name a few.  (2) These antibodies do not produce inflammation, which could cause harm to body tissue.  (3) The production of antibodies changes as baby ages, meeting his needs at the time.  So, no matter what the child's age, a nursing mother can provide the correct amount of antibodies.  For a newborn, this means that a teaspoon of breast milk has literally millions of antibodies. While an older infant has less concentrated antibodies as he likely nurses more often. In the case of a nursing toddler, the concentration of antibodies again increasing as nursing likely takes place less often. 
        In addition to antibodies, breast milk provides even more ways to prevent illness.  It contains Oligosaccharides (a type of sugar) which mimics the binding sites that bacteria use in baby's tummy.  So, instead of attaching to baby's tummy, the bad bacteria goes to this sugar chain.  Next, breast milk contains lactoferrin, a molecule that bonds with two atoms of iron.  Many bacteria live off of iron, so by reducing the available iron, lactoferrin stops the growth of these bacteria.  This method of illness prevention is especially effective against Staph. in newborns.  Finally, breast milk, especially colostrum, contains white blood cells which directly attack infections.

       Researchers have also found that breast milk serves as an "immunomodulating agent" which means that it helps strengthen and build the immune system. It seems that breast milk actually helps baby in the long-term, that is, beyond the period for which the baby is breastfed. These findings are rather recent, and research is still being conducted into the hows and whys. But, it has been seen that breast-fed babies produce greater blood concentrations of proteins which attack viruses, even after breast feeding has ceased.  Additionally, evidence has found that breast-fed babies have produce more anti-bodies as a result of vaccinations.  Finally, these babies begin to produce their own antibodies in larger amounts than non-breast-fed babies.

    Whew!  Keep reading!  The other answers are not quite as long!

    Do babies tend to nurse more during illness?  And, if so, why?
       Yes!  Research has found that effective pain relief for infants includes skin-to-skin contact, suckling, and sweet tastes- all factors involved in breast feeding!  Researchers found that infants who were breastfed before, during, or after receiving immunizations demonstrated decreased heart rates, less crying, and less painful expressions than babies who were not breastfed.  It seems that the fat and proteins in milk actually block pain fibers from running down the spinal cord.  Pretty amazing! 

    How does breast milk clear congestion?
       Truthfully, I couldn't find anything scientific on this topic. Just stories of mothers sharing their success stories.  I guess it's a case where we have to trust mother's intuition.  I can only assume that it works in ways similar to a saline rinse. Again, I really didn't find any hard science on the topic.  Just general statements around loosening mucus in the airways. 

    So, in conclusion, breast milk is pretty incredible for sick babies!  In times where I'm exhausted from nursing her every two hours, I'll be thankful that I'm working to avoid having a sick baby

    Efe, E. (2007). The use of breast-feeding for pain relief during neonatal immunization injections. Applied nursing research, 20(1), 10-16.
    Goldman, A. (1993). The immune system of human milk: antimicrobial, antiinflammatory and immunomodulating properties. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal,8, 664-71.
    Newman, J. (n.d). How breastmilk protects newborns.  Retrieved from

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