Immunology of breast milk

Imunologia do leite materno

Patricia Palmeira Magda Carneiro-Sampaio About the authors

Summary

In the critical phase of immunological immaturity of the newborn, particularly for the immune system of mucous membranes, infants receive large amounts of bioactive components through colostrum and breast milk. Colostrum is the most potent natural immune booster known to science. Breastfeeding protects infants against infections mainly via secretory IgA (SIgA) antibodies, but also via other various bioactive factors. It is striking that the defense factors of human milk function without causing inflammation; some components are even anti-inflammatory. Protection against infections has been well evidenced during lactation against, e.g., acute and prolonged diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, including otitis media, urinary tract infection, neonatal septicemia, and necrotizing enterocolitis. The milk’s immunity content changes over time. In the early stages of lactation, IgA, anti-inflammatory factors and, more likely, immunologically active cells provide additional support for the immature immune system of the neonate. After this period, breast milk continues to adapt extraordinarily to the infant’s ontogeny and needs regarding immune protection and nutrition. The need to encourage breastfeeding is therefore justifiable, at least during the first 6 months of life, when the infant’s secretory IgA production is insignificant.

Keywords
human milk; secretory IgA antibodies; infections; term newborn; preterm newborn

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