Breast milk is pretty amazing stuff, and the body of research proving it just keeps getting bigger. The science indicates it provides optimal nutrition as it is filled with vital nutrients that boost development, fight infection and so much more.
Now, there's new evidence as to why it's so beneficial: A recently published study shows that human breast milk is packed with immune cells ready to help attack bad bacteria.
Researchers from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University analyzed breast milk cells from four lactating women and found that their supply contained innate lymphoid cells, according to a new JAMA Pediatrics study. These immune cells, commonly referred to as ILCs, don't fight germs directly, but instead trigger and advance an immune response to bacteria. Researchers believe ILCs may help protect infants from infection as well as build up their immunity over time.
ILCs are newly discovered group of immune cells and, according to research, are thought to influence immunity as well as regulate inflammation, metabolic homeostasis and tissue remodeling. Study co-author Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chief of the Section of Neonatology and vice chair of clinical research on the Medical College of Georgia Department of Pediatrics, says, "we think these cells help provide frontline immune protection for the baby."
Bhatia and his team found three types of ILCs in the human breast milk, with the most prevalent being type one. These immune cells, the researchers discovered, are transferred to the newborn through the breast milk during nursing sessions and can survive in their guts for several days, at minimum. They ran parallel mouse studies, which showed the same results.
Although the researchers need to dig deeper into what happens when the ILCs enter the little one's stomach, they do believe that these immune cells play a major role in the building of the infant's microbiome, which starts "the moment you are born," says co-author Dr. Jack Yu, chief of pediatric plastic surgery at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. Yu and his team also suggest that ILCs may protect nursing parents from getting an infection from their newborns.
Moreso, they believe that the innate immune cells may be involved in the process that allows breast milk to change to help a sick baby get over an infection, according to the JAMA Pediatrics study. "There is a feedback loop," says Yu.
Of course, more research is needed in order to understand the scope of these cells' role in developing and boosting an infant's immune system. But the JAMA Pediatrics study further proves the short- and long-term benefits of breast milk, which includes cutting the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by half.
Breastmilk is amazing but it's important to remember that fed is best. There's nothing wrong with supplementing with or feeding formula if that's what you need to do. Breastmilk is pretty amazing, but so are you mama, regardless of which way you feed your baby.