When babies are first born, their immune systems are not yet fully matured. This can mean they're more vulnerable to infections or illnesses. There are two ways in which a newborn baby's immune system is supported until it is strong enough to fight off pathogens on its own. Before birth, a mother's immunity is protecting her baby. After birth, this protection lasts for awhile, shielding the baby from germs in the outside world.
Babies can enjoy extended protection from their mother's immune systems for a great deal longer if they are breastfed. Breastfeeding is one of the key ways to extend the time during which a baby is protected by their mother's immune system.
Passive vs. active immunity
There are two categories of immunity: passive and active immunity. These labels refer to how your body develops protection against a certain disease or toxin.
Passive immunity. This type of immunity occurs when a person is given antibodies — the body's response to a pathogen — rather than producing them through their own immune system. Newborn babies get passive immunity from their mothers through the placenta before they're born. A mother shares the antibodies that she has with her unborn baby.
Each baby's passive immunity is unique because each mother's immune system is unique. The exact kinds and amounts of antibodies in a baby's blood are a reflection of its mother's levels at birth. These differences can impact how long passive immunity lasts.
Active immunity. This type of immunity occurs when your body is exposed to a particular disease and develops antibodies to fend it off. Active immunity can happen in two ways: naturally or vaccine-induced.
When you're exposed to a pathogen (like a bacteria or virus) in the world, your immune system learns to "recognize" that pathogen and can protect you in the future. If you receive a vaccine, that's a way to "teach" your immune system safely how to do the same thing — learn to recognize the pathogen and protect you from it if you're ever exposed.
Babies begin to build active immunity shortly after birth as they are exposed to germs in the outside world and as they begin to receive the necessary immunizations to keep them healthy.
How long does mother's immune system protect baby?
Studies are still ongoing in this subject, so there's no precise answer. The exact amount of protection that a baby receives from its mother depends on the antibodies that the mother has in her immune system. Research indicates that a baby's passive immunity lasts for around six months.
One study examined the passive immunity to measles in infants. It discovered that the babies' immunity to the disease diminished over time, and none of them had immunity by the age of 9 months.
In other words, it isn't like flipping a switch. There isn't a cutoff date at which a baby is no longer protected by the passive immunity provided by its mother. Rather, immunity to certain pathogens slowly decreases over several months after birth.
Breast milk, however, contains antibodies that can extend a baby's ability to fight infection.
Among other important elements, breast milk has the antibodies that a mother has in her body (from past infections) as well as those she makes in response to illnesses that she encounters while breastfeeding. This extra support for the developing immune system can help keep newborn babies healthy while their passive immunity wanes and their own immune systems continue to grow stronger.
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Other immunological benefits of breastfeeding
Studies also show that antibodies aren't the only leg up babies get when developing the components of their own immune systems. One study demonstrated that breastfeeding actively encourages an infant's ability to develop critical elements like lymphocytes, cytokines, and other key pieces of a strong immune system.
Components of breastmilk are also directly anti-inflammatory, which helps a newborn's ability to manage their immune response to specific germs, as well as protecting against autoimmune conditions like celiac disease and certain kinds of allergies.
Studies have shown that babies who are breastfed — especially those breastfed by vaccinated mothers — experience fewer infections both in the developing world as well as developed nations like the United States.
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American Academy of Pediatrics: "Breastfeeding Benefits Your Baby's Immune System."
Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Breastfeeding provides passive and likely long-lasting active immunity."
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: The Transfer of Immunity from Mother to Child."
CedarsSinai: "Liquid Gold: How Breast Milk Could Pass Along COVID-19 Immunity." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Immunity Types."
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Types of Immunity."
Frontiers in Immunology: "Vertically Transferred Immunity in Neonates: Mothers, Mechanisms and Mediators."
Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine: "How Long Does Passive Immunity to Measles Last in Infants?"
Progress in Clinical and Biological Research: "Human Milk: Defense against infection."
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