Breast milk, microbiota, and intestinal immune homeostasis

Pediatr Res. 2015 Jan;77(1-2):220-8. doi: 10.1038/pr.2014.160. Epub 2014 Oct 13.


Newborns adjust to the extrauterine environment by developing intestinal immune homeostasis. Appropriate initial bacterial colonization is necessary for adequate intestinal immune development. An environmental determinant of adequate colonization is breast milk. Although the full-term infant is developmentally capable of mounting an immune response, the effector immune component requires bacterial stimulation. Breast milk stimulates the proliferation of a well-balanced and diverse microbiota, which initially influences a switch from an intrauterine TH2 predominant to a TH1/TH2 balanced response and with activation of T-regulatory cells by breast milk-stimulated specific organisms (Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, and Bacteroides). As an example of its effect, oligosaccharides in breast milk are fermented by colonic bacteria producing an acid milieu for bacterial proliferation. In addition, short-chain fatty acids in breast milk activate receptors on T-reg cells and bacterial genes, which preferentially mediate intestinal tight junction expression and anti-inflammation. Other components of breast milk (defensins, lactoferrin, etc.) inhibit pathogens and further contribute to microbiota composition. The breast milk influence on initial intestinal microbiota also prevents expression of immune-mediated diseases (asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes) later in life through a balanced initial immune response, underscoring the necessity of breastfeeding as the first source of nutrition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Fatty Acids, Volatile / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / immunology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology
  • Homeostasis / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Microbiota*
  • Milk, Human / metabolism*
  • Milk, Human / microbiology*
  • Species Specificity
  • Symbiosis*


  • Fatty Acids, Volatile