Your breastmilk is in a continual state of dynamic changes that are made depending on your child’s needs. There are numerous studies on the immune-building properties of our milk and how much it helps prevent illness in our children. However, the process of how this actually happens is a much lesser-known bit about breastfeeding. The amazing thing is that our milk is not just a liquid. It’s an ever-changing tissue!
Do you remember the first time you held your baby? Often our first instinct is to hold them close, touch their face to ours and give them a little kiss. This is not random; it is science and instinct! By holding and kissing our babies, we are actually exchanging germs, leading to antibodies in our milk to help protect our children. Even if you are tandem nursing (breastfeeding an older child along with a baby), your milk will continue to change to meet the needs of both children.
Breastmilk as Medicine
Breastmilk is a dynamic, living tissue that continually changes based on your child’s needs. This happens not only throughout each 24 hour period but the entire period of time your child breastfeeds. So whether your child is 4 months old or 4 years old, they will reap the benefits. Your milk provides numerous protective factors against illness and microorganisms, and it also provides good bacteria and stems cells (Wedekind & Shenker, 2021, Witkowska-Zimny & Kaminska-El-Hassan, 2017). This directly protects your baby. There is literally nothing like it! There is no substitute as it’s continually changing to meet your child’s needs.
How does exposure lead to protection?
Will breastfed babies still get sick sometimes? Yes, of course! However, we know that the risks are greatly decreased for many different health challenges when breastfeeding. This includes diarrheal illness, obesity, and fewer acute illnesses (Pattison et al., 2019). By just holding, kissing, and touching your baby, you are allowing your body to go through the process to make the antibodies and protective factors needed for your baby.
As you kiss and cuddle your baby, their little germs go into your system, where your body then produces the antibodies to work directly against those little germs and bugs. Those antibodies then pass directly through your breastmilk to your child. This important process happens the entire time you breastfeed. So, if someone questions the fact that you’re “still” breastfeeding your “older” baby or child, remind yourself of this fact. This is an important process that continues throughout your breastfeeding days, weeks, months, and years.
Another amazing part of this process is how your baby’s saliva actually changes your milk. As your baby breastfeeds, their saliva mixes with the breastmilk. The hypothesis is that it works partially as a “backwash” process, leading to the production of these antibodies for your baby. This interaction plays an important role in establishing the baby’s microbiota as well (Sweeney et al., 2018).
What if I’m exclusively pumping and/or mixed feeding?
While the actual way in which your baby receives the milk can affect this process, as mentioned previously, we do know that even just kissing or touching your baby leads to a change in your milk. While your baby will not be mixing their saliva with your milk at your nipple, you will still be exchanging germs and bugs through cuddles and kisses. This will also help to change your milk for your child’s needs. Remember, every bit of milk you can give your baby is important! If you are feeding formula and your expressed breastmilk (mixed feeding), you are still going through this process for that expressed milk to provide milk that meets your child’s specific needs.
Now, as you cuddle and kiss your baby, you can also think about how amazing your body is at changing those cuddles into species-specific milk just for your child. Our bodies are incredible! Your milk brings them these immune-building properties. It also serves to comfort, gives pain relief, and is tantrum soother for when they are energetic, independent toddlers. Breastfeeding brings them (and you) so much.