Last week in the New York Times Science section, there was an article that reported on a national breast-feeding awareness program that is suggesting that not breast-feeding your children is tantamount to negligence. Now, I’m all for breast feeding, I think it probably is the best food for an infant. However, I think there is also lots of misinformation about why breast feeding is good.
One of the reasons I often hear is that breast milk confers extra immunity to the infant. I get this from everyone including pediatricians and scientists, and it also appeared in that Times article. The argument stems from the fact that breast milk contains immunoglobulins and lymphocytes. Well, let’s think about this more clearly. Immunoglobulins or antibodies are proteins and digestion breaks proteins down into amino acids. That is why pharma always tries to develop small molecule drugs. Protein-based drugs must be injected. You can’t take them orally. Now, in certain mammal species, neonates possess pathways to transport proteins in breast milk directly into the blood stream. The jury is still out on humans but it looks like we’re not in that category. So, I’m sorry to say, your baby is probably not getting extra antibodies from breast milk.
So why should a baby be breast fed? One thing that has been found is that the microflora of breast-milk fed babies differ significantly from formula-fed babies. You’re body has more bacterial cells than it’s own cells so having the right mix of micro-organisms is very important. I think this is the main reason we should push breast milk. Establishing the correct microflora environment is probably crucial for digestion and fending off infections. Additionally, the contents of breast milk will vary depending on what the mother eats. Formula always tastes the same. Breast fed babies have been known to prefer what their mothers eat and to have more diversity in their food preferences in general. Cultural tastes may partially be propagated through breast feeding. Also, babies seem to control the amount they eat much better with breast feeding than with a bottle. That may partially be because parents encourage their babies to finish each bottle even if the baby is already full. The bottom line is that their are many benefits to breastfeeding but obtaining antibodies is not one of them.