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There is increasing evidence that exclusive breastfeeding (EBF), up to six months of age, has profound biological effects on the health and nutritional outcomes of children. The immunological properties of breast milk ensure adequate nutritional status, proper growth, and development of morbidity prevention capacity in infants. In addition, EBF substantially reduces the risk of morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases as it eliminates any chances of contamination from formula milk or other fluids and foods.
Breast milk contains antibodies that can fight infection. While these antibodies are present in high amounts in colostrum, the antibodies still remain present in the breastmilk the entire time a mother continues to nurse. Through them, the mother passes on the protection from infectious illness she had in the past, and those she gets while breastfeeding, to her child. Breast milk can literally give babies a head start in overall preventing and fighting infections.
Since breast milk is made up of proteins, fats, sugars and even white blood cells that work to fight infections, it is especially helpful in fighting gastrointestinal issues, as breast milk heads right to the stomach and intestine when the baby eats. It works directly within the intestine before being absorbed by the entire body, and also sets the stage for a protective and balanced immune system even after breastfeeding ends.
The proteins, lactoferrin and interleukin-6, -8 and -10, present in breast milk helps to balance the immune system inflammatory response, which is needed for immune function, but can also be damaging in excess.
Guess what? Breast milk has probiotic factors, too. While some support the immune system, others serve as a nutrient source for healthy bacteria in the body, called the human microbiome. It can play a lifelong role in not only preventing infection, but also in decreasing the risk of allergies, asthma, obesity and other chronic diseases.
With all these immunity-boosting factors in breast milk, it is not surprising that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from ear infections, vomiting, diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and certain types of meningitis. Research also shows that children, who nurse for more than six months, are less likely to develop childhood leukaemia and lymphoma than those who receive formula. This may be in part because these types of cancer are affected by disruptions to the immune system.
It is the first line of defense and is activated within minutes of birth, reacting in a nonspecific, pre-programmed, and patterned manner to various infectious or foreign stimuli. Hence, the evolution of human milk, right from colostrum through transitional milk to finally becoming mature milk, provides nutrition and protection appropriate for the time-affected development of the infant.
Nonetheless, the components in breast milk are multi-functional, serving as enzymes, antimicrobial proteins/peptides (AMPs), growth factors, chemokines, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory elements, prebiotics, probiotics, and nutrients for the growing infant. So, the interactions of human milk with its natural host, the infant, create a symbiotic commensal relationship.