Breast Milk Is Good for the Gut: Research Confirms the Benefits of Exclusive Breastfeeding

Pumped Breast MilkAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, followed by breast milk with complimentary food until one year, and then continued breastfeeding for two years or beyond as mutually desired by the mother and her baby. My husband and I take the WHO recommendations very seriously. Our nurse practitioner also recommends not introducing solid foods until after six months of age, so Poppy did not get a bite of food other than my milk until she was six months old.

One of the main reasons that I believe in delaying the introduction of solid foods is that young babies have an immature digestive system, or an “open gut.” Until about six months of age, the cells in the intestinal tract are spaced relatively far apart, which allows beneficial antibodies from breast milk to develop the immune system. At the same time, however, the open gut also allows other substances such as proteins and pathogens directly into the blood stream. Giving a young baby any food other than breast milk not only weakens the power of the antibodies in the breast milk but also increases the risk of developing allergies including food allergies because of an overexposure to food proteins. For both reasons, immune-boosting and allergy-reducing, my husband and I decided not to introduce Poppy to any solid foods until she was at least six months old.

Turns out as well, breast milk is even better for the gut than ever before thought. Recent research has been looking at the effects of breast milk versus formula on the intestinal tracts and immune systems of exclusively breastfed babies versus exclusively formula fed babies. All the research indicates that breast milk is good for the gut.

Recent research led by Robert Chapkin from the Texas A&M University and published as “A Metagenomic Study of Diet-Dependent Interaction Between Gut Microbiota and Host in Infants Reveals Differences in Immune Response” in the journal Genone Biology studied the microbial colonization in the intestinal tract of three-month-old exclusively breastfed and exclusively formula fed infants. Microbial colonization is critically important for directing neonatal intestinal and immune development, so researchers wanted to examine the differences in babies fed only breast milk versus babies fed only formula. The researchers discovered that formula fed infants had fewer and more similar microbes in their guts than breastfed infants. Furthermore, the immune systems of the breastfed infants had further developed to cope with the great number and variety of microbes. In other words, exclusive breastfeeding matures and develops the intestinal tract and immune system in ways that exclusive formula feeding cannot.

In another study conducted at the University of Illinois, researchers further explored the differences in the gut microbes between breastfed and formula fed infants. Breast milk is rich in human milk oligosaccharides, or HMO. HMO, which are present in higher concentrations than proteins in breast milk, produce short-chain fatty acids that feed the beneficial microbial population present in the intestinal tracts of breastfed babies. HMO essentially work like a probiotic that feeds the good bacteria in the gut that work against the bad bacteria in the gut. Furthermore, as breastfed babies age and the bacteria in the gut changes, HMO produce different patterns of short-chain fatty acids. In other words, as the gut changes, so too does the milk. Infant formula currently lacks HMO.

Breast milk truly is amazing. By not introducing solid foods to my daughter until she was six months old, I not only reduced her risk of allergies including food allergies, but I also helped to strengthen her immune system. Through exclusive breastfeeding, my daughter reaped the full benefits probiotic, immune-boosting, healthy-bacteria-feeding properties of my breast milk. Her little immune system is stronger because I refused anything other than exclusive breastfeeding. Breast milk is good for the gut and good for babies!


Breastfeeding benefits: Human breast milk ingredient adjusts to optimize for beneficial gut bacteria over time:
Breastfeeding linked to healthy infant gut: Bacterial colonization leads to changes in the infant’s expression of genes:
Li, Min Li, Laura L. Bauer, Xin Chen, Mei Wang, Theresa B. Kuhlenschmidt, Mark S. Kuhlenschmidt, George C. Fahey Jr., & Sharon M. Donovan. 2012. Microbial composition and in vitro fermentation patterns of human milk oligosaccharides and prebiotics differ between formula-fed and sow-reared piglets. Journal of Nutrition 142 (4): 2139-2145.
Schwartz, Scott, Iddo Friedberg, Ivan V. Ivanov, Laurie A. Davidson, Jennifer S. Goldsby, David B. Dahl, Damir Herman, Mei Wang, Sharon M. Donovan, & Robert Chapkin. 2012. A metagenomic study of diet-dependent interaction between gut microbiota and host in infants reveals differences in immune response. Genome Biology 13(4).

Image Credits

Pumped Breast Milk © 2012 Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson

Heather Johnson is a mother, wife, writer, librarian, and linguist. She earned a BA in English studies with a minor in creative writing from Illinois State University in May 2007, an MS in library and information science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in May 2009, and an MS in English studies with an emphasis in linguistics at Illinois State University in December 2011.

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