The microbial population living in breast milk and the transport of bacteria between mother and child play a crucial role in regulating health.
With no more intimate moment between a mother and child, breastfeeding provides nutritional, immunological and emotional nurturing. However, recent discoveries have revealed an even deeper connection that suggests breastfeeding is far more precious than we first thought. The secret lies within microbial populations living in breast milk. Whilst bacteria hardly sound like an enticing gift, the transfer of a mother’s microbial inhabitants appear to be the most valuable gift a mother can provide to her child.
Definitely not sterileNot so long ago, it was thought that breast milk was completely sterile. Any sign of bacteria was attributed to the presence of infection in the breast, such as mastitis, or to contamination by skin flora. However, advances in understanding of the vast microbial populations that live within our body, dubbed the ‘human microbiome’, paint a completely different picture.
Healthy breast milk has been found to be crawling with bacteria.DNA sequencing technology is now identifying 400 species living in the breast with many more likely to be accompanying them. To make things even more complicated, they are constantly changing over time with measured shifts in microbial presence between pre- and postnatal samples, as well as between months 1-6 of breastfeeding.
A mother’s inner highwayFor a newborn, the first encounter with bacteria occurs with the placenta. Then, natural vaginal birth is designed to provide a ‘starter pack’ of microbes for the child.
The mother’s body doesn’t stop there: it will prepare a rich and diverse microbial population to be delivered during breastfeeding. Bacteria, as it turns out, seem to be traveling from the mother’s gut to her breast milk. New and exciting research is showing how the immune system moderates this process in the stomach by selecting microbes to transport to the breast via the lymphatic system.
Like a microscopic highway, studies have also shown that breastfeeding women given a capsule of bacteria to swallow can later have the very same species isolated from their breast milk. A fascinating picture of how a mother cherry picks microbes from the outside world to give to her infant.
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Hi there! I'm Erika Davis and I'm a doula working in the Seattle and South Puget Sound area.