New Insight on Breastfeeding and Improved Infants Immunity

January 25, 2020

A new peer-reviewed study reveals new insight into why breastfeeding improves infants immunity and prevents disorders of the immune system in later life.

A new research by the University of Birmingham, peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, has revealed new important insight into the biological mechanisms of the long-term positive health effects of breastfeeding in preventing disorders of the immune system in later life. The results of the study – titled, “Breastfeeding promotes early neonatal regulatory T cell expansion and immune tolerance of non‐inherited maternal antigens”, and published in “Allergy – European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Imnunology” – emphasise the importance of breastfeeding, say the researchers.

“Breastfeeding”, authors explain, “is associated with long‐term health benefits, such as a lower incidence of childhood infections, asthma, obesity and autoimmune disorders. However, little is known regarding how the maternal and neonatal immune systems interact after parturition when the neonate receives nutrition from maternal breastmilk.”

In this new study, researchers have investigated those mechanisms and have for the first time discovered that a specific type of immune cells – called regulatory T cells (or Tregs) – expand in the first three weeks of life in breastfed human babies and are nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies. These cells also control the baby’s immune response against maternal cells transferred with breastmilk and help reduce inflammation. Moreover, the research showed that specific bacteria, called Veillonella and Gemella, which support the function of regulatory T cells, are more abundant in the gut of breastfed babies.

Senior author Gergely Toldi said: “The influence of the type of milk received on the development of the immune response has not previously been studied in the first few weeks of life. Prior to our research the outstanding importance and the early involvement of this specific cell type in breastfed babies was unknown.”

Authors found that the proportion of regulatory T cells (Tregs) increases in the first three weeks of life and is nearly two‐fold higher in exclusively breastfed neonates compared to those who received formula milk only. Moreover, study breastfed neonates show a specific and Treg‐dependent reduction in proliferative T cell responses to non‐inherited maternal antigens (NIMA), associated with a reduction in inflammatory cytokine production.

“We hope this invaluable new insight”, Toldi declared, “will lead to an increase in rates of breastfeeding and will see more babies benefit from the advantages of receiving breastmilk. Furthermore, we hope for those babies who are formula fed, these results will contribute to optimising the composition of formula milk in order to exploit these immunological mechanisms. We are very grateful for the mums and babies who contributed to this special project.”

Full Study: “Breastfeeding promotes early neonatal regulatory T cell expansion and immune tolerance of non‐inherited maternal antigens”