Breast feeding and Immunity to Infection

Human milk is the first form of nutrition for a neonate. Mammary glands are part of the integrated mucosal immune system and produce antibodies against mucosal pathogens that the mother is exposed to and which the infant is most likely to encounter. Breast milk contains several factors that protect against infections in the breast-fed infant either through passive immunity or by activating the infant's immune system. These include secretory IgA and IgM antibodies specific to maternal pathogenic encounters, short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which can inhibit bacterial growth, block bacterial toxins and activate eosinophils, bactericidal lactofer-rin, lysozymes, and mucins, as well as lymphocytes (both T cells and B cells), which may transfer primed immunity to the infant.

Additionally, cytokines and other growth factors in human milk contribute to the activation of the lactating infant's immune system, rendering breastfed infants less susceptible to diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, otitis media, and other infections and may impart long-term protection against diarrhea. Breast feeding also reduces mortality from diarrhea and respiratory infections. However, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection (and other viral infections) can be transmitted from a virus-positive mother to her child through breast milk, and breast-feeding is responsible for a significant proportion of childhood HIV infection.

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