Breastfeeding and immunity

Breastfeeding and mothers’ vaccinations

In general, it is safe for breastfeeding women to receive a vaccination should it be needed. If unsure, each mother should check with her health care provider for information about a particular vaccination. For more information, see The Australian Immunisation Handbook (2013).

Vaccination recommendations for babies are consistent regardless of whether a baby is breastfed or not. For more information, see The Australian Immunisation Handbook.

How breastfeeding helps support and develop a baby’s immune system

It is well known that breastfed babies are less likely to get infections than formula-fed babies. Breastmilk contains many factors that help support a baby’s immune system. A mother passes on lots of proteins, fats, sugars and cells that work against infections when she breastfeeds her baby (e.g. antibodies, white blood cells, lactoferrin, lysozyme, oligosaccharides, probiotics and prebiotics).

When a mother comes into contact with germs in her environment, she makes antibodies to fight those germs. These antibodies pass into the breastmilk and therefore on to the baby. Since a mother and her baby are generally in contact with the same germs, this helps protect her baby from the illnesses they are both exposed to. The main type of antibody in breastmilk is IgA. IgA antibodies protect the internal surfaces of the body, such as the mouth, stomach, intestines and lungs. These antibodies are not digested by the baby. Instead they coat the gut and block the entry of infections that could otherwise cause illness.

In addition, there are a number of other factors in breastmilk that grant a breastfed a more efficient immune system. For example, breastfed babies develop a larger thymus gland than formula-fed babies. The thymus gland makes a type of white blood cell that helps protect against infections.

Breastfeeding and babies’ vaccinations

Vaccination recommendations for babies are consistent regardless of whether a baby is breastfed or not. For more information, see The Australian Immunisation Handbook.

The Australian Breastfeeding Association’s position statement on breastfeeding states: ‘Breastfeeding alone does not provide sufficient immunity to childhood diseases and parents need to seek appropriate guidance on immunisation from their medical advisers’.

Although breastfeeding often reduces the severity of illness in a baby, it is important to understand that breastfeeding does not provide a substitute for immunisation. In other words, breastfeeding does not provide your baby with total immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccines developed to fight severe, life-threatening diseases such as polio, diphtheria and measles provide additional protection. Moreover, breastfeeding may improve a baby’s response to some vaccines. Breastfed babies produce higher levels of antibodies in response to some vaccines than formula-fed babies.

Breastfeeding is known to be an effective way to distract babies from pain. Mothers often breastfeed their baby while their baby receives a vaccination in an effort to reduce the baby's perception of pain.

References

Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing 2013, The Australian Immunisation Handbook. 10th edn. Accessed 13/6/13 from URL: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home

Hanson L 2004, Immunobiology of Human Milk: How Breastfeeding Protects Babies. Pharmasoft Publishing: Göteborg Sweden.

State Government of Victoria, Department of Health 2012, Immunisation and pregnancy. Accessed 13/6/13 from URL: http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Immunisation_and_pregnancy

Tansky C, Lindberg CE 2010, Breastfeeding as a pain intervention when immunizing Infants. Journal for Nurse Practitioners 6(4): 287-295.

© Australian Breastfeeding Association April 2019

The information on this website does not replace advice from your health care providers.

Last reviewed: 
Apr 2019