Breastfeeding: Does What You Eat Boost Your Baby’s Immune System?

Posted on 09 March 2020

When it comes to creating the perfect food for infants, it’s pretty hard to improve on Mother Nature.  Every mammal produces a breast milk uniquely suited to its own young, allowing newborns to do exactly what they need to do to survive. Animals whose young need to walk and run to escape predators produce milk that is high in protein and minerals. Seal mothers who give birth near icy waters provide their young with milk that is 60 percent fat, helping them double their birth weight in insulating blubber in a matter of days.  And mother kangaroos can produce different types of milk from separate nipples for differently aged offspring.

Photo by SI Janko Ferlic

When it comes to our breastmilk, it is designed first and foremost to support the organ humans most rely upon for survival — our brains — as well as to fend off disease. Your milk’s composition will change constantly to reflect your infant’s changing needs and to respond to what’s in their environment. With all of that built-in ingenuity, is there anything you can do to boost nutritional content, or strengthen you baby’s immune system? As it turns out, in most cases the best thing you can do is to keep yourself healthy, as unless you’re deficient in an essential vitamin, your body is going to produce exactly what baby needs.

The First Few Days

In the first few days after birth, your body will produce colostrum, a sticky yellow fluid that many experts refer to as a “superfood”. To understand exactly how important colostrum is to your infant’s health, consider this: a recent study compared the proportion of immune cells present in colostrum to the amount present in mature breast milk just two weeks later and found that it dropped from a high of 70% to just below 2%.  That lower level remained constant throughout lactation, rising only when either the mother or the baby was sick. (More on that later.)

Colostrum not only helps build up the foundation of your infant’s immune system, it also helps protect their intestines, acts as a laxative, gets rid of harmful waste products and delivers the right nutrients to contribute to the development of brain, eyes and heart.

What’s In Your Breast Milk?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a vegan, a carnivore, or something in between, your body is going to provide the breast milk that your baby needs. Its content changes based on more than age and development: studies have shown that when the temperature outside drops human breast milk’s fat content increases, and when either you or your baby have an infection the proportion of immune cells in breast milk can increase up to 94%!  Breast milk is incredibly dynamic, and the only instances where it falls short of an infant’s nutritional needs are where the mother’s body is particularly deficient.

Keeping yourself healthy and your own immune levels high is the best way to ensure that your breast milk provides everything that your child needs. Your breastfeeding diet should include:

  • Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Fruit is loaded with vitamins B1, B2, B6 and Vitamin C, as well as antioxidants that protect against long-term damage, and vegetables like spinach, broccoli and kale provide potassium, folate and Vitamin A. All of these are crucial to keeping you healthy.
  • In-the-know extra: Vitamin C increases the production of antioxidants that stimulate the immune system and strengthens your body’s tissues. It also helps you form new white blood cells and antibodies faster. When you’re nursing you should take in at least 120 milligrams of Vitamin C per day. Good sources include strawberries, oranges and Brussels sprouts.
  • Lean protein. Taking in three servings a day will provide you with nine essential amino acids that your body can’t make on its own. Your body needs an additional 25 grams of protein per day while breastfeeding in order to maintain your milk supply. Good sources include beef, chicken, eggs, legumes and beans.
  • In-the-know extra: Salmon and sardines are two of the best sources of protein for lactating mothers. Not only are they high in Vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids (which can ward off postpartum depression), they’re also one of the best sources of Vitamin D, one of the few vitamins that both mothers and their infants are prone to deficiencies of. Plus, salmon is high in DHA, which is important to your infant’s nervous system development.
  • Whole grains. Whole grains can help you produce more milk, will keep your energy levels high, and contain B vitamins, minerals and fiber.
  • In-the-know extra: Eating whole grains helps maintain a healthy gut biome, boosting both immune and metabolic responses as well as cutting down on inflammation, and recent studies have shown a direct link between a breastfeeding mother’s gut biome and their child’s gut biome. The healthier your gut flora, the healthier your child’s will be.
    Photo by Bonnie Kittle

    One more extra: Your infant’s immune system does not mature until they are two-to-three months old. During those first few months, they rely upon the immunity that they gained in utero and through your breast milk to protect them from bacteria and viruses, but you can also help to guard against exposure to illness by limiting the number of people who come into direct contact and insisting that visitors, friends and family wash their hands thoroughly before touching the baby.


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