We all need bacteria (also called flora) in our digestive tract to help our immune system work and get the most energy from our food, babies are the same! Your baby has a sterile gut until birth - that means her digestive tract is a blank slate.
A vaginally delivered baby gets exposed to mom’s good bacteria during the birth process – thanks mom! A c-section baby will get his first dose of bacteria from the environment – microbes may come from the nurses and other babies in close proximity.
A baby’s digestive tract is still immature at birth, even in a full term baby. Research shows the mucous that lines a baby’s intestines has small gaps, that can allow pathogens to enter and can result in diarrhea and other illness.
Breast milk is the only food that creates a protective shield over the digestive tract. Antibodies in colostrum, and later in breast milk fight off bad bacteria, allowing the beneficial bacteria to flourish. Researchers find breastfed babies have different stomach flora, a lower pH (more acidic), and fewer disease causing microbes than formula fed babies. This is one of many reasons why breastfed babies are less likely to get sick, visit the doctor or need antibiotics.
This protective coating is destroyed by the introduction of just one bottle of formula. If the supplemental formula is given within the first seven days, the correct acidity of the stomach may never be reached. Studies show the after formula is fed, even a breastfed baby has gut flora similar to an adult person with no extra protection for their immature immune system.
Any breast milk is better than none. The most benefits come from exclusive breastfeeding, use a breast pump or Milk-Saver to collect and store your milk for bottle feeding. Just one formula feed has lasting effects on your baby’s stomach and immune system.
Photo courtesy of American Academy of Microbiology.