Breast feeding improves the health of children. The greatest significance is to host defense, prevention of autoimmunity, and development of the digestive system; however, the underlying mechanisms for these effects are not well understood. Based on recent evidence that cytokines might be important in these processes, we have used ELISA to quantitate the cytokines in human colostrum, transitional, and mature milk from mothers delivering preterm or at term. We also used reverse transcription PCR to test breast milk cells for the production of cytokine mRNA. No significant (< 10 pg/ml) GM-CSF, SCF, LIF, MIP-1 alpha, IL-2, IL-4, IL-11, IL-12, IL-13, IL-15, sIL-2R, or IFN-gamma was detected. And, in contrast to earlier studies using bioassays or RIA, no significant IL-1 beta, TNF-alpha, or IL-6 was present; nor was IL-10, which had been tested using less specific antibodies. We did confirm the presence of high levels of M-CSF, which remained high throughout lactation. Human milk contained latent, but not free, TGF-beta 1, and especially TGF-beta 2, both of which may be activated by gastric acid pH. High levels of IL-1RA were detected, and like activated TGF-beta, may protect against autoimmunity. Chemokines, particularly GRO-alpha and MCP-1, but also RANTES and IL-8, were present and could protect against infection. Maternal cells in breast milk expressed mRNA for MCP-1 (20/20), IL-8 (14/20), TGF-beta 1 (14/16), TGF-beta 2 (4/6), M-CSF (9/12), IL-6 (6/12) and IL-1 beta (7/12), and may be a source of these cytokines. mRNA for IL-2, IL-10, IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha was not detected and only weak expression was found for RANTES (1/18). There was considerable variability between individual women, and women delivering preterm had lower levels of several cytokines in colostrum than women delivering at term. Yet, cytokine levels remained high months to years into lactation, providing immunological benefit to the breastfed infant/child.