Midwife & Breastfeeding Consultant

Your Fabulous Breast Milk!

Posted on April 4, 2012

Most people think that the main purpose of breast milk is to make a baby grow and put on weight. However, breast milk is extremely versatile and has many other functions.  

Two of these vitally important functions are to protect the newborn baby from bacteria and viruses and also to stimulate the baby’s own immune system to mature and grow.  By stimulating the baby’s own immune system to start fully functioning breast milk ensures that the baby will be able to fight infections throughout childhood and beyond. 

Lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, oligosaccharides, cytokines and secretory immunoglobulin A  may sound as if they come from the realm of science fiction but in actual fact they are just some of the special components that are found in breast milk.   Breast milk is made up of water, fats, sugars, proteins, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and many other components.   In total, breast milk is 87% water with the remaining 13% packed with substances that do so much more than just nourish a baby. 

Breast milk has a tall order to fill; a newborn baby is born with an extremely immature immune system due to being protected by the sterile environment of the uterus during the pregnancy.  From the moment of birth a baby is exposed to bacteria and viruses that he or she will have never previously encountered and this makes the baby vulnerable to diseases and infections.  Luckily, breast milk is very cleverly designed to protect the newborn baby from most potentially harmful infections.

One of the reasons breast milk is so effective is because 70 to 80 % of the immune system is located in the intestines (our stomach and bowels), so when a baby breastfeeds the milk is going to exactly the right place!  Then the fabulous lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, oligosaccharides, cytokines and secretory immunoglobulin A can get to work.  So what do these substances do that make breast milk so powerful?  Prepare to be amazed!

Lactoferrin has a nutritional role as a protein but it’s main function is one of defence. It works in conjunction with other components in breast milk to help kill bacteria, viruses and fungi.  It has also been shown in some studies to protect the baby against urinary tract infections and this may explain why breastfed babies have a lower incidence of urinary tract infections compared to non-breastfed babies. 

Alpha-lactalbumin is also a milk protein but it has the incredible ability to attack cancerous cells and kill them.  This ability has been named by the research scientists as HAMLET – Human Alphalactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumour cells, this process is thought to help protect the mother  from breast cancer and to protect the baby’s intestinal system from cancerous cells.  It is also thought to be the reason why breastfed babies have a lower incidence of childhood leukaemia.

Oligosaccharides are the scientific term for all the different types of combinations of sugars that are present in breast milk and so far there have been over 900 different types of oligosaccharides found in breast milk!  These sugars work to protect the baby from bacterial and viral infections by stopping them from adhering to the intestinal wall and thus preventing infection. 

Cytokines are a group of proteins that have many different functions such as preventing inflammation, decreasing the risk of wheezing and decreasing the risk of developing allergies.  Cytokines are also involved in the development of the thymus gland which plays a major role in the prevention of autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.  In fact an exclusively breastfed baby has a thymus gland that is twice the size of a non-breastfed baby.

Secretory Immunoglobulin A (SIgA) is the major antibody in human milk and it’s role is to prevent infections it does this by attaching itself to the intestinal wall and blocking bacteria and viruses.   SIgA also protects the baby from infections that the mother is exposed by developing an antibody to a bacteria or virus and transferring it into the breast milk to protect the baby.  So as the mother is exposed to various bacteria and viruses while she is out and about she is able to protect her baby from them just by breastfeeding.  This shows how versatile breast milk is, it adapts and changes to provide what each individual baby needs – it is truly custom made  - fabulous!

Breast milk is a part of nature’s intrinsic plan to nourish and protect the baby, and so every single time a baby breastfeeds all these substances and many many more are given to the baby.   Add to this the fact that breast milk is always available, always the right temperature, always just want the baby needs, requires no preparation and is free it is easy to see why breastfeeding is so beneficial for mum and baby.


Giving your baby the best!

Research Facts about the benefits of breastfeeding

Compared to the baby who is fully breastfed for more than 13 weeks the baby who does not receive breast milk is:

  • 5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital with diarrhoea and more likely to be ill for longer.

  • 2 times more likely to be admitted with respiratory (breathing) diseases.

  • 2 times more likely to have ear infections.

  • 2 times more likely to develop eczema or a wheeze.

  • 5 times more likely to develop a urinary tract infection.

  • Have an increased risk of juvenile onset insulin dependant diabetes mellitus.

  • Have a higher blood pressure at age seven and an increased risk of obesity.

 In addition children who have breast milk for eight months or more have higher IQ scores and have been shown to achieve more at school.