Breast-feeding, a complex support system for the offspring

Pediatr Int. 2002 Aug;44(4):347-52.


The newborn has an immune system, very limited in size at birth and its postnatal expansion and maturation takes time. In the meantime the transplacental IgG antibodies from the mother play an important role for the protection of the infant. However, these antibodies act in tissues and induce inflammation and are energy-consuming. In contrast, the milk secretory IgA antibodies stop microbes already on the mucosa preventing infection, tissue engagement and energy loss. In addition, the milk contains many protective factors such as lactoferrin and oligosacharides functioning as analogues for microbial receptors preventing mucosal attachment, the initial step of most infections. As a result, breast-feeding significantly reduces the risk of neonatal septicemia, respiratory tract infections, otitis media, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, infection-induced wheezing and necrotizing enterocolitis. Via several mechanisms it seems that human milk can actively stimulate the immune system of the breast-fed infant. This reduces the risk of infections like otitis media, respiratory tract infections, diarrhea and infection-induced wheezing for several years after the termination of breast-feeding. Furthermore, it seems that breast-feeding decreases the risk of attracting celiac disease and allergic diseases. The latter has been much debated, but a recent critical review of published reports gives good support for long-term protection of allergic diseases, especially in high-risk children.

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Infection Control
  • Milk, Human / immunology*