Frozen breast milkShare on Pinterest
MonthiraYodtiwong/Getty Images

As a breastfeeding mom, you might encounter a lot of challenges. From helping your baby learn to latch to waking in the middle of the night with engorged breasts, breastfeeding may not always be the magical experience you expected.

There’s a special joy in the milk drunk smile of your sleeping little one. But for many breastfeeding moms, the motivation to push through challenges also comes from knowing they’re providing their baby with the best possible nutrition.

You’ve likely heard time and again that breast milk can help to keep your baby healthy. That’s because your milk contains antibodies that pack a big punch for immunity.

Here’s the scoop on the specific antibodies your baby is getting from your milk.

Breast milk antibodies can offer many benefits to babies. These include reducing your baby’s risk of:

  • Middle ear infections. A 2015 review of 24 studies found that exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months provides protection against acute otitis media up to 2 years of age, with a 43 percent reduction in occurrence.
  • Respiratory tract infections. A large population-based 2017 study showed that breastfeeding for 6 months or longer reduces the risk of respiratory tract infections in children until age 4 years.
  • Colds and flu. Exclusively breastfeeding for 6 months can reduce the risk of your baby contracting an upper respiratory virus by 35 percent, per another population-based 2010 study. A smaller study found that breastfed infants had greater success in developing immunity to the flu.
  • Gut infections. Babies who are exclusively breastfed for 4 months or longer have a significantly lower incidence of gastrointestinal tract infections, per a population-based 2010 study. Breastfeeding is associated with a 50 percent decrease in diarrhea episodes and 72 percent decrease in hospital admissions due to diarrhea, per one comprehensive 2016 review of studies.
  • Intestinal tissue damage. For preterm babies, a 60 percent reduction in necrotizing enterocolitis was associated with being fed breast milk in a 2019 study.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Breastfeeding can reduce the likelihood of developing early onset IBD by 30 percent, according to one 2009 study (though researchers noted more studies are needed to confirm this protective effect).
  • Diabetes. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes is lessened by 35 percent, according to pooled data from 11 studies, though researchers in the 2016 review from The Lancet noted just three studies were of high quality (with an overall reduction of 24 percent, still “potentially important”).
  • Childhood leukemia. Breastfeeding for at least 6 months may mean a 20 percent decrease in the risk of childhood leukemia, says a 2017 review of 17 different studies.
  • Obesity. Breastfed babies have a 13 percent lower odds of developing overweight or obesity, according to a 2015 review of studies.

What’s more, breastfeeding can also reduce the severity of many illnesses and infections should your baby become sick. When a mother and baby are exposed to an illness, mom’s breast milk will change to give them the specific antibodies they need to fight it off. Breast milk really is a powerful medicine!

If you’re feeling sick, there’s usually no reason to stop breastfeeding your baby. The exceptions to that rule are if you’re undergoing certain treatments, like chemotherapy, or on certain medications that are unsafe for your baby to consume.

Of course, you should always maintain good hygiene when breastfeeding your baby to avoid transmitting germs whenever possible. Remember to wash your hands frequently!

Colostrum and breast milk contain antibodies called immunoglobulins. They are a certain kind of protein that allow a mother to pass immunity to her baby. Specifically, breast milk contains the immunoglobulins IgA, IgM, IgG and secretory versions of IgM (SIgM) and IgA (SIgA).

Colostrum in particular includes high amounts of SIgA, which protects a baby by forming a protective layer in their nose, throat, and throughout their digestive system.

When a mother is exposed to viruses and bacteria, she will produce additional antibodies in her own body that are transferred through her breast milk.

Formula does not include environment-specific antibodies like breast milk does. Nor does it have built-in antibodies to coat an infant’s nose, throat, and intestinal tract.

Even donor milk has been shown to contain fewer antibodies than mother’s milk — probably because of the pasteurization process required when milk is donated. Babies who drink their mother’s milk have the greatest chance of fighting infection and illness.

From the very beginning, your breast milk is filled with immunity-boosting antibodies. Colostrum, the first milk that a mother produces for her baby, is full of antibodies. By offering your newborn even some breast milk early on, you’ve offered them a great gift.

Breast milk is the gift that keeps giving, though. The antibodies in your milk will continue to adapt to fight off whatever germs you or your baby are exposed to, even after your child is eating solid foods and cruising around the house.

Researchers agree there is a huge benefit to continued breastfeeding. The World Health Organization currently recommends exclusively breastfeeding for your baby’s first 6 months and then continuing supplemental breastfeeding for the first 2 years of your child’s life or beyond.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. They encourage continued breastfeeding with the addition of solid foods for the first year and beyond, as mutually desired by mother and baby.

The research on whether breastfeeding provides defense against allergic conditions such as eczema and asthma is conflicting. Per a 2017 journal article, it remains unclear whether breastfeeding prevents allergic conditions or shortens their duration.

So many factors influence whether a child has allergies or not that it’s difficult to isolate the role of breastfeeding in impacting the degree of any allergic reactions.

Although it may not always be easy, breastfeeding is definitely worthwhile!

If breastfeeding your little one is more of a struggle than you anticipated, it can be useful to remind yourself of all the benefits breast milk offers. Not only are you giving your child immediate protection from illness, but you’re also setting them up for a lifetime of good health.

So, enjoy every sleepy milk cuddle and try to hang in there. Ask for help if you need it, and remember, no matter how long you nurse, any breast milk you can give your baby is a great gift.