World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated every year worldwide to improve the health of babies around the world. We all know that breastfeeding offers immense health, nutritional, immunological, psychological and economic benefits, but it is particularly important for babies who are predisposed to allergies. Recent studies have shown that exclusive breastfeeding for at least 4 months may reduce the incidence of atopic dermatitis by up to 40%, and may also reduce asthma.
A newborn baby’s digestive system is immature, and breastmilk is the ideal milk for easy digestion. Breastmilk also helps the immune system to mature, thus potentially playing a role in protecting against food allergies.
Breastmilk contains essential immune components, a variety of healthy bacteria, as well as complex sugars which allow these good microbes to thrive. One of the biological constituents in breastmilk, immunoglobulin A (IgA), “paints” a protective coating on the inside of a baby’s intestines to prevent penetration by potential allergens. IgA “trains” the immune system to distinguish between what is harmful and what is not. It assists in preventing inappropriate inflammatory reactions against the foods we eat and helps to develop our tolerance to allergens. It also provides passive immunity from the mom by binding to pathogens, thereby protecting the baby from infection by bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
When babies are about six weeks of age, their intestines begin to produce immunoglobulins, with the aid of microbes within the gut. At around six months, a baby has a functional, albeit immature, immune system that can produce its own IgA. The presence of mature, healthy bacteria in the baby’s gut microbiome is important, as some microbes are immuno-stimulatory and are able to increase the production of IgA.
Formula milk, nowadays, is a very sophisticated product and although it certainly provides adequate nutrition for babies who are unable to be breastfed, it lacks the complex biological constituents that are present in breastmilk and is not designed to support the maturation of healthy gut microbes as effectively as breastmilk does.
The theme for 2017 World Breastfeeding Week is “Sustaining Breastfeeding Together”. It is going to take a collaborative effort from all to increase breastfeeding rates in South Africa. Let’s work together to spread the word of the importance of breastfeeding and assist moms in reaching their breastfeeding goals.