Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Jamie Morea, Henderson, Nevada, USA
Breast milk and the strong immune system
“No matter what, start hand expressing within an hour or two after birth to tell your body to make milk.”
When you are pregnant a lot of people give you advice. It was this piece of advice that I especially appreciated. You see, my water broke at 27 ½ weeks while we were vacationing in the Caribbean, and our plans for an undisturbed home birth went gushing out with it.
As our babymoon turned into a lunar eclipse, I urgently grasped for information. We didn’t have a plan B and I had no idea how much time I had to create one.
Little did I know, my friend’s words would become the rudder that allowed us to successfully navigate our way through the dark times ahead, because exactly two weeks later, at 29 ½ weeks, my breech baby was born via an emergency cesarean.
He was whisked away by the NICU team and I was rolled into the recovery room, where I spent what seemed like forever alone with my deepest fears, thoughts, and emotions. Would our son survive? Would the trauma of an early birth negatively impact the rest of his life? What does the journey ahead look like? When can I hold him? He needs to be with his mom.
That’s when I remembered my friend’s advice. “They will tell you to rest and recover,” she had said. “But, no matter what, start hand expressing within an hour or two after birth to tell your body to make milk.”
Right. I have to pull myself together. I have to focus. He needs me. We can do this.
I knew breastfeeding would be a central part of my son’s early life because breast milk is essential to the formation of a strong, healthy immune system. In fact, I knew this more than most because of my work investigating probiotics.
You see, breast milk is full of vital bacteria whose benefits extend far beyond the superior nutrition it provides. Probiotics literally lay the foundation of a healthy gut that will serve a baby throughout his or her life. And, babies get the beneficial bacteria they need from two places: the birth canal and their mother’s milk. We had already bypassed my first opportunity to seed my son’s microbiome through a vaginal birth and I wasn’t about to let the second one pass us by without a fight. The stakes were high because the consequences of a damaged microbiome in a baby’s first days can have lifelong, negative effects.
Here are just a couple of examples.
- A 2015 study published in Trends in Molecular Medicine found that the infant microbiome plays a key role in immune and metabolic health and that its development can be negatively affected by C-section, perinatal antibiotics, and formula feeding. In fact, babies who are given both formula and breast milk have a subpar microbial makeup that resembles that of babies who are only given formula.
- A study published in Science Magazine in 2015 by Katie Hinde and Zachary T. Lewis found that breast milk is filled with hundreds of beneficial bacteria that get to work colonizing your baby’s individual gut flora which will become the foundation for his or her immune function (80% of immune system cells reside in the GI tract).
I knew the miraculous powers of a mother’s milk and how critical it was that I pass my bacteria on to him. I knew it in my head, like a walking encyclopedia, but it was time to feel it in my bones.
They say birth is a rite of passage into mamahood. For me, this was the defining moment. My baby needs my milk and there is something I can do about it.
I began massaging my breasts with a renewed sense of purpose. In those first few days, I would hand-express every two hours, sometimes for as long as an hour. My husband would collect the tiny drops of colostrum (aka liquid gold) with a syringe and then we’d proudly deliver our .4ml to the NICU.
The days before my milk came in were trying, to say the least. It was painful and often felt fruitless. We were physically and emotionally exhausted and I was recovering from major surgery, but it was worth it. In the end there is nothing like the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve done everything possible to ensure the health of your child.
With my mama bear hormones in full swing, I ate well and took supplements. And I expressed with a vigor I hadn’t previously known. My son got the essential ingredients to a healthy start and I never had to consider supplementation due to a low milk supply.
There were other challenges to overcome along the way. During our 64-day NICU stay, he learned to suckle, how to coordinate swallowing with breathing, and how to move from bottle- and tube-feedings to the breast. And you know what else? He never got sick.
The odds of having an exclusively breastfed baby after such premature birth are extremely low. And there were multiple times when I was sure we were losing the fight. But what kept me going, what kept me pumping through the night and what kept me offering my breast to my son (even when he preferred the bottle), was knowing how essential my milk was for his tiny microbiome.