Pumped Breast Milk May Not Actually Be as Protective as Nursing, Study Suggests

Mother breastfeeding her newborn baby girl. Baby happy while drinking milk from mother's breast. Vintage color tone.
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In the debate of breast versus bottle, I have to admit there is one factor that I failed to take into consideration: Where exactly the milk comes from.

You would think breast milk is breast milk, right? Well, apparently not. According to a November 2017 study, pumped breast milk might not be as protective against asthma for infants as milk that is consumed directly from the breast.

The study, which appeared in The Journal of Pediatrics, followed 3,296 children in Canada and compared mother-reported feeding methods in 3-month-old infants to asthma diagnoses in those children at the age of 3 years old. Results from the study revealed that all types of feeding during infancy, including pumped breast milk only, a combination of pumped breast milk and formula, and formula only, were associated with higher levels of asthma in the children later in life.

The only type of feeding that was associated with a lowered risk of asthma? Direct, straight from the breast nursing.

So does this mean that pumped breast milk loses some of its mythical, magical powers as “liquid gold?” Not so fast, say Project Director Nikia Fuller-Sankofa and Harumi Reis-Reilly, lead analyst, lactation consultant (IBCLC) with the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Breastfeeding Team in Washington, D.C. As it turns out, a 2016 study showed that human milk in general is not protective against asthma, so they found the results of the newer study “not surprising.”

In their opinion, it’s not so much as where the milk is coming from, but that as a society, we should strive to make human milk the primary source of nutrition for human babies.

“Pumped or expressed human milk is still the optimal infant nutrition,” they noted, explaining that even with some variations, human milk in any delivery form contains live cells and infection-fighting abilities, such as anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial properties, hormones, probiotics, and even HAMLET (human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells) cells that induce the death of tumor cells.

However, Fuller-Sankofa, Reis-Reilly, and Molly Petersen, a certified lactation counselor at Lansinoh mention that there are some pretty cool benefits that come from direct from the breast nursing. “Close physical contact through breastfeeding helps your body create antibodies,” explains Petersen.

For example, the “immunomodulation response” during direct breastfeeding occurs when an infant’s saliva comes in contact with the mother’s mammary glands to “tell” it what antibodies it might need during an infection or illness. “Think about a ‘made-to-order’ immune-support meal,” Fuller-Sankofa and Reis-Reilly describe.

On one hand, I’m apt to roll my eyes at the asthma and breastfeeding study. I mean, really. Don’t researchers have enough to do without scrutinizing every last detail of how a mother feeds her baby? Breast milk alone isn’t enough anymore — now it has to come fresh from the breast to the baby, or else!

But on the other hand, if a mother has a child who may be predisposed to asthma, say from a family history, this information might be something that could influence her feeding decisions. All I know is that it can feel hard sometimes to distinguish between “science” and what sounds suspiciously like shaming women for feeding choices that are less under their control as we would like to believe. Because as both Fuller-Sankofa and Reis-Reilly point out, it’s unrealistic to expect that every breastfeeding mother in all the land feed exclusively at the breast.

For example, they note that without paid parental leave in the U.S., according to statistics from 2013, almost one-quarter of working mothers returned to work within two weeks of giving birth. And then add in the fact that 62 percent of women who are active in the workforce have a baby under 12 months, and what do you get? A desperate need for breast pumps, that’s what.

Racial disparities also play a huge role in breastfeeding. Fuller-Sankofa and Reis-Reilly explain that black mothers in the U.S. on average return to work earlier than other racial and ethnic groups and face work conditions that are less supportive of breastfeeding.

Oh, and let’s not forget about the fact that pumped breast milk can literally save the lives of babies in the NICU. Breast milk has been found to be protective against potentially fatal complications, such as sepsis and necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition that affects the intestines of premature infants.

Bottom line? It’s basically an incredible accomplishment if you provide any breast milk to your baby at any time, so let’s not waste time feeling guilty whether that milk comes fresh from the boob or not. If you’re a pumping mom or a mom who knows she will be using a breast pump to feed your baby, know that you are in both Fuller-Sankofa and Reis-Reilly’s words, a “rock star.”

There are a lot of factors at play against breastfeeding mothers in general, so any woman willing to make such a huge commitment to her baby in spite of some pretty tough obstacles should be commended.

“Society and providers at large should meet mothers where they are, and support families to do the best with what they have at the moment,” they tell Babble. “Pumping is hard work, and pumping mothers should be praised for their extra effort to provide optimal food for their babies.”


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