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Beneficial Effect of Breast Milk On the Baby’s Immune System

Breastfeeding
Wikimedia Commons/ Anton Nosik

There are a lot of health reasons why breast milk is better for a baby then formula, and now another reason can be added to the list. A recent study found that specific immune cells (regulatory T cells) expand more in the first three weeks of life in breastfed human babies - nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies.

These cells control the baby's immune response against maternal cells transferred with breast milk and help reduce inflammation. In other words, breast milk is good for the baby's immune system development.

The University of Birmingham researchers also found that specific beneficial bacteria, called Veillonella and Gemella, which support the function of regulatory T cells, are more abundant in the gut of breastfed babies.

Breast milk is considered the best food for infants. It contains a range of complex nutrients, antimicrobial proteins, bacteria, human milk oligosaccharides, and hormones from the mother. Thus it isn't surprising that whether the baby receives breast milk or formula influences the gut microbiome (community of microbes in the gut).

From Science Daily: New insight into why breastfed babies have improved immune systems

Research led by the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Women's and Children's NHS Foundation Trust has revealed new insight into the biological mechanisms of the long-term positive health effects of breastfeeding in preventing disorders of the immune system in later life. 

Breastfeeding is known to be associated with better health outcomes in infancy and throughout adulthood, and previous research has shown that babies receiving breastmilk are less likely to develop asthma, obesity, and autoimmune diseases later in life compared to those who are exclusively formula fed.

However, up until now, the immunological mechanisms responsible for these effects have been very poorly understood. In this new study, researchers have for the first time discovered that a specific type of immune cells -- called regulatory T cells -- expand in the first three weeks of life in breastfed human babies and are nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies. These cells also control the baby's immune response against maternal cells transferred with breastmilk and help reduce inflammation.

Moreover, the research -- supported by the National Institute for Health Research's Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology Research Centre (NIHR SRMRC) -- showed that specific bacteria, called Veillonella and Gemella, which support the function of regulatory T cells, are more abundant in the gut of breastfed babies.

The results of the study, published in Allergy, emphasise the importance of breastfeeding, say the researchers.

The study is the culmination of a unique three-year research project analysing data from 38 healthy mothers and their healthy babies. Small amounts of blood and stool samples were collected at birth at Birmingham Women's Hospital and then again later during home visits when the babies were three weeks old. Sixteen out of the 38 babies (42%) were exclusively breastfed for the duration of the study, while nine babies received mixed feeding, and 13 babies were exclusively formula-fed.

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