Can Breastfeeding Protect Babies From the Measles?

breastfeeding baby

Moms hear all the time that breastfeeding boosts the baby's immunity by passing along the mother's antibodies. With a measles outbreak spreading, many a breastfeeding mom may be wondering if nursing can keep their babies safe from the virus. After all, babies under the age of 1 can't get the measles vaccine, so it sure would be nice to know that nursing could help protect your baby.


Alas, as nice as this would be, breast milk can't do everything. In one Belgian study testing the levels of measles antibodies in 207 mothers and their infants, researchers found that breastfeeding had no significant impact on measles antibody levels in babies. And doctors tend to agree.

"Breast milk offers some protection, but it's not really enough to shut down a measles infection," says James Abbey, MD, a medical researcher at the Infant Risk Center in Amarillo, Texas.

The reason? Breast milk delivers different types of antibodies, and the one it delivers in spades is called IGA, which coats the throat and digestive tract. But the kind of antibodies you need to fight off measles is called IGG.

"Breast milk has some IGG," Dr. Abbey explains, "but it doesn't always make it into the bloodstream where it can offer the right protection."

That's why breast milk does great at warding off infections in the throat and stomach ... but falls short when it comes to fighting off more contagious, systemic viruses like measles, chicken pox, or polio.

More from The Stir: Measles Parties: The New Way to Immunize Your Kids

That said, the news isn't all bad, since the Belgian study also found that babies do naturally get a decent amount of measles antibodies at another point: during pregnancy! These antibodies, passed through the placenta, typically remain in the baby's body for 3.8 months for women who are "naturally immune" (meaning they got measles as a kid) and for .97 months for vaccinated mothers. By six months, though, 95 percent of the former babies and 99 percent of the latter had lost all those antibodies. Still, at least your baby does have some protection when he's young and fragile -- it sure is better than nothing!

Bottom line: don't count on nursing to protect baby from the measles, but don't be discouraged either -- every little bit helps. 

What measures have you considered to keep your baby safe from measles?


Image via Dmytro Vietrov/shutterstock

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