Though the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and Save the Children recommend infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies continue breastfeeding for a year or “as long as is mutually desired by the mother and baby” after those initial six months.
Why is breastfeeding so important? For a long time, clinicians have understood that breast milk protects children from inadequate nutrition. But in addition to providing important nutritional benefits, breast milk can also protect children from contracting a number of diseases later in life, including juvenile diabetes, heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis before the age of 15. And recently, a team of researchers at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan has found that the effect of breast milk on an infant’s gut microbiome may be what prevents certain diseases from developing in infants by boosting their immune system. This includes the risk of getting allergies later in life.
However, other factors besides breastfeeding affect the composition of an infant’s gut microbiome, including the infant’s gestational age of birth, method by which he or she was delivered, mother’s race/ethnicity, exposure to tobacco smoke before and after birth, and even the presence of pets in the home.
For those unaware of the term, the gut microbiome refers to the “ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms” residing in the gut, though bacteria also reside on the skin and other exposed surfaces. Interestingly, new research has demonstrated that our microbiomes can exert a very significant effect on our health, and microbes have been implicated in depression, anxiety, autism and shaping the immune system.
Ultimately, the research by the Henry Ford Hospital physicians demonstrates that a sterile environment may not be the best option for babies. Lead investigator Christine Cole Johnson said in a hospital news release, “Exposure to these microorganisms, or bacteria, in the first few months after birth actually helps stimulate the immune system…If you minimize those exposures, the immune system won’t develop optimally.”
The study will be presented Saturday at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology annual meeting. Its findings add credence to the importance of breastfeeding for proper child development and also further our knowledge about the many factors that affect microbiomes. As new research and technologies continue to elucidate the complex interactions between microorganism, genomics, and ourselves, physicians and scientists will better understand both the origins and progression of disease and subsequently, how to best treat them.
(Photo courtesy of Aurimas Mikalauskas)