Breastfeeding and autoimmunity: Programing health from the beginning

Am J Reprod Immunol. 2018 Jan;79(1). doi: 10.1111/aji.12778. Epub 2017 Oct 30.


Breast milk is not only a completely adapted nutrition source for the newborn but also an impressive array of immune-active molecules that afford protection against infections and shape mucosal immune responses. Decisive imprinting events might be modulated during the first months of life with potential health long-term effects, enhancing the importance of breastfeeding as a major influence on the immune system correct development and modifying disease susceptibility. The aim of this review was to clarify the link between breastfeeding and autoimmune diseases, inquiring the related mechanisms, based on data available in the literature. Being breastfed was associated with a lower incidence of diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis and asthma, explained by the protection against early infections, anti-inflammatory properties, antigen-specific tolerance induction, and regulation of infant's microbiome. The protective role of human milk in idiopathic juvenile arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases remains controversial. On the other hand, the breastfeeding mother faces a health-challenging period in life. High levels of prolactin may lead either to the development of autoimmune diseases in susceptible mothers or exacerbations of current immune-mediated disorders. These features raise the question if mothers with autoimmune diseases, mainly systemic lupus erythematosus, should avoid breastfeeding.

Keywords: autoimmune diseases; breastfeeding; human milk; microbiome; prolactin; systemic lupus erythematosus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmunity*
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immune Tolerance
  • Infant
  • Infant Health
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic / immunology*
  • Milk, Human / immunology*
  • Prolactin / metabolism


  • Prolactin