Breastfed Babies Might Be Better Protected From Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

by Vanessa Taylor

People sometimes think of breastfeeding as only necessary to feed babies, but there are other benefits that often go undiscussed. The full potential of breast milk is continuing to be discovered. A new study is highlighting yet another benefit of breastfeeding after finding babies may be better protected from antibiotic-resistant bacteria if they were breastfed, which could potentially have a real impact on a baby's health.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of an infant's life, as outlined by the Australian Breastfeeding Association. After, the association recommended combining breastfeeding with solid foods for two years, or as long as mom and baby desire.

Not every mother can breastfeed their child for that long — or at all — and that's OK. In the United States, nearly 52 percent are breastfed for at least six months, as noted by the CDC. In a time where there's more alternatives for feeding infants, researchers are motivated to fully explore the health benefits of breast milk itself.

One big reason people quote in support of breastfeeding is that it helps keeps babies from getting sick sick. As WebMD outlined, breast milk contains antibodies that can help babies fight off any viruses or bacteria that come their way. But, what else can breast milk do to help fight off bacteria?

More than 200,000 infants die each year of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria across the globe, according to the University of Helsinki. It is a staggering number and one that researchers want to see drop.

At the University of Helsinki, researchers decided to investigate "the amount and quality of bacteria that's resistant to antibiotics in breast milk and the gut of mother-infant pairs," according to Eurek!Alert. The study's abstract outlined that researchers worked with 16 mother-infant pairs over a course of eight months.

The study had three major findings. As outlined by the study's abstract, infants that breastfed for at least six months fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts compared to other babies. Researchers concluded that this meant that breastfeeding seemed to protect them from such bacteria.

Researchers did find breastmilk can contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that can be similarly passed from mother to child as well, as noted by Eurek!Alert. However, the study suggested that, overall, breastfeeding reduces the number of resistant bacteria in an infant's gut.

The study also found that when mothers were given antibiotics during delivery, their baby had more antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts, according to the University of Helsinki. Researchers noted that these bacteria continued to be present six months after delivery and the treatment.

"We cannot advise that mothers should not be given antibiotics during delivery," microbiologist Katariina Pärnänen noted, according to the university. "The consequences of infection for both mother and infant are potentially serious. What we can state is our findings, and physicians can use them to consider whether practices should be changed or not.”

The benefits of breastfeeding could still be seen in babies who were also given formula. Pärnänen added:

"Partial breastfeeding already seemed to reduce the quantity of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Another finding was that nursing should be continued for at least the first six months of a child's life or even longer. We have already known that breastfeeding is all in all healthy and good for the baby, but we now discovered that it also reduces the number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics."

As antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more of a concern, finding ways to help infants is a pressing issue. This study helps prove just how amazing breast milk is and, really, how little of its full benefits might actually be known.