USAID, August 2015
"The antibodies in your breast milk have prevented any serious illness.” At those words from the pediatrician, I pulled my head out of my hands, astonished.
There I was doubled up in the corner of the doctor’s office with a 104°F fever, a mask covering my face, and the worst stomach virus I had ever had. Yet, my two-month old son, who had been exposed to the same gut-wrenching bug, was lying on the exam table smiling and cooing. It seemed impossible that this tiny baby, whose immune system was not yet fully developed, could stave off what my mature immune system could not. I had taken my son to the doctor because I was worried that his symptoms (some slight diarrhea, vomiting, and loss of appetite), would snowball into the same severe gastrointestinal symptoms I was experiencing. But, as the doctor explained, my breast milk was not only providing all of the nutrients and fluids that my son needed to grow and thrive, it was also protecting him from getting really sick.
The truth is I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I make my living as a global health communicator at PATH where talk about disease prevention is routine. We communicate widely about the importance of tools such as vaccines, medicines/treatments, clean water/air, AND breastfeeding as essential components of an integrated strategy for controlling some of the world’s leading child killers, including pneumonia and diarrhea. I knew well how antibodies that help me fight disease can pass to my son through my breast milk. But, despite my awareness, I was seeing the power of breastfeeding in action through a “new mom” lens and could hardly believe my eyes.
Here, in the United States, we are used to having ready access to a whole suite of tools for helping our children make it to adulthood. We have the vaccination and treatment resources to protect our children from many life-threatening infectious diseases, including diarrhea and pneumonia. We have clean water and sanitation systems that run to virtually every household, preventing the spread of water-borne illnesses. The stoves in our well-ventilated homes most often use resources other than fossil fuels, keeping the air our children breathe clean and avoiding harmful air contaminants that can be contributing factors to pneumonia and other respiratory complications. While easily accessible for us, these resources are often out of reach for children in the developing world. As a result, too many children die because they cannot access or afford the interventions that could have saved their lives.
Breastfeeding is one of few tools that mothers around the world already have in their arsenal to protect their children from disease, no matter where they live. It provides ideal nourishment that prevents malnutrition, assists in the development of children’s immune systems, and enables the transfer of disease-fighting antibodies from mother to child. When direct vaccination is not an option, breastfeeding is a good way for infants to receive at least some immunity to some diseases in the critical early months of life, including several causes of pneumonia and diarrhea. When clean water and sanitation are unavailable, exclusive breastfeeding can also help children avoid exposure to diarrheal and other diseases caused by contaminated water.
Reflecting on how I was able to help my son fight off a strong stomach bug by breastfeeding, I feel a sense of empowerment and solidarity with mothers around the world. This is something we can do naturally with great benefit to our children. Here in the United States, getting my son to the doctor took a phone call, a five minute drive, and a nominal co-pay to my insurance. In other parts of the world, mothers travel long distances at great financial hardship to get their children to the care they need. Sometimes they arrive too late. Some mothers have no access to health care at all. In an ideal world, all children would have access to the highest standard of health care, which includes the full suite of disease prevention and treatment tools. While obstacles to this access are not going away any time soon, I am reassured that breastfeeding is at least one lifesaving tool inherently capable of crossing the geographic and socioeconomic divide.