Breastfeeding is not only a natural and beneficial source of nutrition, but also a newborn’s first line of defense against a multitude of illnesses and diseases. That being said, it is also important to acknowledge the importance of combining the naturally immune boosting power of breast milk with the life-saving power of vaccinations. And to do that I’m calling in an expert! Please join me in welcoming Dr. Melanie Mouzoon to MOMmunizations! Dr. Mouzoon is a board certified pediatrician with Kelsey-Seybold Clinic and serves as Managing Physician for Immunization Practices and Foreign Travel. Read on to find out why breastfeeding simply cannot replace immunizations.
Protecting your baby from infection starts well before she is born. Women’s bodies have a marvelous system in place – women carry a child whose tissue is distinct from her own, but the placenta effectively protects the infant from being rejected by mom in most cases. Pregnant women also have a reduction in overall immune system functioning as a protection to the infant– one reason why pregnant women are more vulnerable to influenza and other infections.
The placenta doesn’t simply defend the baby, however. It also allows mom’s IgG, small protein antibodies, to pass to the infant. IgG antibodies are specific to a wide variety of infections that mom has had in the past, as well as to the vaccinations she has had. Passage of IgG immunity to the infant gives some protection against these infections for about six months. This type of protection stays mostly within the bloodstream of the infant, and works by flagging germs to be removed by the white blood cells and the spleen.
Breastfeeding contributes a different antibody, IgA, to protect the infant. IgA antibodies coat the respiratory tree and the digestive system to prevent invasion of foreign proteins, many related to infection.
It may seem that the infant will be well-protected with the transfer of immunity from mom, but we know that this protection is inadequate in unvaccinated babies. Prior to the development of immunization, throughout human history, mothers have given immune protection to their infants before birth and by breastfeeding –yet infant mortality from infections such as bacterial meningitis remained high well into the modern era. In fact, most children who died from infection, died in infancy. HIB infection has always been common in children under the age of six, for example, but HIB remained the cause of many thousands of cases of meningitis, epiglottitis, pneumonia and skin infections and deaths until HIB vaccine was developed in the 1980s. Despite the fact that most women would have had HIB infection as children, they did not pass sufficient immunity to their infants to prevent serious illness and death, and good hygiene and general health of the community was also not sufficient to protect these unfortunate children.
Immunity to many infections (and vaccines) wanes over time. We know that pertussis (whooping cough) immunity from infection and vaccines is not durable, and that infants in the first few months of life are at the highest risk of infection and of death. This risk declines dramatically after one dose of DPT vaccine and is nearly eliminated after three doses, though boosters are needed to maintain protection. A new measure recently recommended to try to increase the protection mothers are able to pass to their infants is immunization of mom with pertussis vaccine (Tdap) in the last trimester of pregnancy. It is believed that this will prevent whooping cough in infants before they are able to receive their first shots. We already have evidence that influenza vaccine given to mom protects her newborn.
In sum, do your best for your baby’s health. Breastfeeding provides the best start, but be sure to back up that protection with all of the protection that immunization provides – starting with Hepatitis B vaccine at birth, and continuing with timely administration of all childhood vaccines.