How Breast Milk Boosts Your Baby's Immunity, Because It's Literally Like Magic

Ad failed to load

Breast milk is an incredible substance that science hasn't yet been able to replicate in formula — though they're getting closer, and the most important thing is always simply to love and feed your baby. Nevertheless, one of the things that separates breast milk from every other digestible fluid on the planet are the presence of adaptive antibodies: a tangible biological gift for however long you choose to breastfeed. Here's how breast milk boosts your baby's immunity, and what science says about the germ-fighting magic of nursing.

An article in Future Virology described breast milk as an "altruistic secretion," because it's one of the few bodily fluids that actively protects another creature. Antibodies in breast milk reflect a mom's immune history — the colds and flus she's seen in the past — at high concentrations, and protect against a spectrum of potentially harmful viruses and pathogens, including rotavirus. More fantastically still, breast milk changes to reflect the germs you encounter while you're breastfeeding, shielding your infant from threats in real-time. Even when you catch a cold, your milk marshals its cold-fighting forces, and passes them on to your baby. It's a boost, indeed.

Ad failed to load

"During the first six months of life, the infant's immune system is still immature and relies on the antibodies present in mother's milk to act as its own," explains Julie Gladney, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), of Ebb & Flow Lactation, in an email interview with Romper. That means fewer illnesses for breastfed babies, especially in the early months. "The literature clearly shows fewer cases of diarrhea, ear infection, upper respiratory infection," and even chronic diseases.

For a long time, doctors didn't know why breastfed babies contracted fewer illness than formula-fed infants, according to the breastfeeding site Kelly Mom. Scientists assumed it had something to do with human milk having less bacteria than cow's milk or formula. But doctors now understand that breast milk doesn't have fewer components than other liquids — it has more. You breast milk is literally swimming with antibodies, immune cells, and proteins, molecules and cells ready to attack threatening microorganisms, explained Kelly Mom. When it comes to immune protection, kale smoothies don't hold a candle to mom's milk.

But wait, there's more. According to a study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, breast milk is anti-inflammatory too, and inflammation is implicated in a number of troublesome conditions. Additionally, there's evidence that breastfed infants respond better to vaccination, getting more bang for their shot. Multiple studies even suggest that breastfeeding results in lower rates of celiac disease and allergic conditions. Breast milk primes and "stimulates" the immune system on multiple levels, offering potentially life-long benefits for a baby.

Ad failed to load

And what about the short-term benefits of nursing? In the winter months, every parent worries about their baby's susceptibility to colds and the flu. Can breast milk keep an infant from getting sick in the first place? What about helping your infant through an illness once they have one?


"Breastfeeding doesn't guarantee protection against colds, but it is generally advised to continue nursing during minor illnesses to offer the nursling the continued many benefits of breast milk," Angie Natero, RN, IBCLC, tells Romper in an email interview. Combined with good hand hygiene and careful attention to symptoms, breastfeeding your baby is an exceptional way to nurse them through a winter cold.

Ad failed to load

As with everything in a parent's life, however, breastfeeding isn't a panacea. Breastfed babies still get sick, develop allergies, and suffer from serious conditions. Meanwhile, many formula-fed babies prove hardy, illness-averse creatures. When it comes to the immune system, genetics, nutrition, and luck have important roles to play. All of which is to say you shouldn't feel badly if you don't breastfeed, or don't nurse for as long as the World Health Organization recommends (two years or longer). Yes, breast milk gives an infant's immune system a boost. But if you're reading this article, whether you're nursing, planning to nurse, or thinking about switching to formula, you already care deeply about your baby, and that's the best protection in the world.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

13 Unique (& Totally Not Mainstream) Mother's Day Gifts For The Hipster Mom

Hipsters thrive on being outside the norm and not really digging anything considered "mainstream." Whether it's in their fashion, what music they listen to, the books they read, or how they enjoy beverages, there's just something that makes them dist…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's How To Introduce Your Pet To Your Baby & Make Everything As Calm As Possible

Our home, which we lovingly refer to as “the funny farm,” is filled with four-legged family members. We have two crazy beagles and two cat jerks, and boy are they loved and spoiled. (As they should be.) But we are now finally having a baby of our own…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills