Will our babies be affected by their mother's weak immune system?
June 26, 2009 11:15 AM   Subscribe

My wife's mother did not breastfeed her; she was fed formula until she was weaned.

There was no medical reason for this fact. It was a matter of convenience for my mother-in-law. My wife has a pretty weak immune system; she will tend to get whatever is going around. I cannot help but think that this is due, at least partially, to the fact that she never ingested her mother's colostrum. How will this affect our (future) children? Will they similarly be affected, even if my wife breastfeeds them? If so, is there anything we can do to mitigate the issue?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There is evidence that this isn't as important as previously thought.

Our baby's formula fed, she's healthy and smart and happy. Plenty of people weren't breastfed. Almost all adopted children, for example. Sometimes women are sick, or have to take drugs they don't want to pass on to their babies. Sometimes they're not ergonomically set up for it. Things happen. It's not uncommon.

Either way, immune systems are built up by good health, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, a lack of stress, proper sanitation, social support--many other contributing factors other than whether one is breastfed. I was breastfed as a child and had the world's worst ear infections as a kid. Go figure.

What concerns me about your post is that you sound angry. You sound angry at your mother-in-law, and it kind of sounds like you would be angry at your wife, if circumstances arranged themselves in a way that she couldn't breastfeed. Perhaps I'm wrong, but if I'm not--that's an uncharitable attitude to have and one you might want to examine.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:23 AM on June 26, 2009 [12 favorites]

It doesn't matter. Seriously.
posted by The World Famous at 11:26 AM on June 26, 2009

I was fed formula till maybe 5 months, when a large part of my diet became people food. I am of normal weight and have a pretty strong immune system: no allergies, and I haven't been sick in 4 years.

That said, if your wife is missing some antibodies or resistances, they will not be protected just by drinking from her milk. Take care of your children and don't medicate them every time they sneeze, and you can do right by them. Breastfeeding is nice for those women who are able, but (on preview, I agree with the llama) you can raise a healthy, happy child from the bottle as long as you are caring and nurturing.
posted by Night_owl at 11:27 AM on June 26, 2009

Anecdotal: My mother did not breastfeed any of her three children and we are all very healthy adults with strong immune systems. I breastfed my own child, and she gets sick about as often as any other kid--and more frequently than I did.

From what I understand, the immune benefits of breast feeding don't extend beyond the first months.
posted by girlbowler at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2009

The antibodies in breast milk protect the baby while it's breastfeeding. They don't affect one's immune system decades after they've stopped drinking breast milk, and they certainly will not effect your own baby's immune system.

Anecdotal: I wasn't breast fed, and I rarely get sick. Maybe one minor cold every 3-4 years or so.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 11:30 AM on June 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

There are millions of children who were never breastfed; during the 1950s and 60s formula feeding was all the rage. Yet we didn't get an entire generation of adults with weakened immune systems as a result. Likewise, there are adults in this world who were breastfed until they started solid foods and still manage to catch every bug going around the workplace or neighborhood. (Heck, I was formula-fed and I have an over-active immune system.) Some people are just more susceptible to catching colds and flu than others. Please forgive my presumptuousness, but this seems like a very pedantic concern. "My wife gets sick a lot, there must be some explanation for it, and what if she passes her faulty genes on to our children?" I grew up with a father like this, and it wasn't pleasant. He rarely got sick, when he did it was always someone else's fault or some environmental thing - he always felt compelled to lay blame somewhere. So when we kids fell ill, even with a simple flu, he'd rail and say it was because we'd done this or that, and then he'd tell my Mom "it must come from your side of the family, no one in my family is ever sick."

Please don't become this kind of dad.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:32 AM on June 26, 2009 [15 favorites]

You're making multiple assumptions here.

First, that breastfeeding confers long-term benefits to the immune system. What I've read indicates that while there is some research that shows that breastfed children are less susceptible to certain diseases later in life, most of the increase in immune system effectiveness is during breastfeeding or shortly after.

Second, you're assuming your wife's weak immune system is partially due to her lack of being breastfed. I don't think you can assume any link here whatsoever, unless she has a sibling who was breastfed, lives in the same environment, has a similar lifestyle, and is ill signficantly fewer times.

Third, you're assuming that there's some matrilineal line of immunity conferred that's been broken because your wife did not receive some antibodies from her mother. That takes assumption #1, that there's a long-term benefit, and combines it with a new assumption that the particular benefit is what is passed on.

While there was no medical reason for your wife to not be breastfed, there is no medical reason for you to believe that the apparent benefits of breastfeeding will not be available for your own children. As for mitigation, just do everything you would do for any child (or person) to keep them as healthy as possible. Even if they were breastfed, that does not guarantee they won't be as prone to falling ill as your wife.
posted by mikeh at 11:33 AM on June 26, 2009

I didn't eat any breastmilk. My sister did. (Neither of us nursed, because we were both very premature and in the hospital for a long time.) We're both equally healthy. (it's possible that the reason I'm so much smaller than she is (Im very petite) is because she did get breastmilk, but it's hard to know, and there are certainly a lot of confounding variables.)

I have been able to choose to nurse my daughters (I like it, they like it, my work allowed me to do so easily), but I know other good mothers who have not nursed/been able to nurse, and their kids are turning out fine too.
posted by leahwrenn at 11:34 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Adding to the anecdotal pile: I was also a formula-only baby. I'm so infrequently sick that I graduated from HS having never missed a day of school from K-12 and have a cute little certificate from the school district to prove it. My 100% breast-fed-until-he-was-fricking-3 son also rarely gets sick though he blew his perfect attendance record earlier this year and he has a heck of a time w/ seasonal allergies.

It's not about the milk and it's not all on your wife's genes.
posted by jamaro at 11:34 AM on June 26, 2009

I wasn't breastfed. I'm sick with a cold maybe once every 2 years. I watch my nutrition, get my sleep, exercise and hydrate. My own doctor has commented that these are the reasons I don't get sick when I fly 40+ times/year.

I'm not a doctor and maybe someone else can weigh in here, but this issue affecting your own children? Really? I'm sure they'll be fine. (And it always galls me to hear a man talk about a woman's convenience when having and breastfeeding children. You might want to watch that when speaking in public.)
posted by meerkatty at 11:37 AM on June 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another anecdote: My mom got very sick right after I was born, so she couldn't breastfeed me. I rarely get sick and I bounce back quickly from illnesses when I do get them.
posted by SoftRain at 11:37 AM on June 26, 2009

Immunity depends on a long list of things, and being breastfed as a child is way at the bottom, if it's even on the list at all. Definitely nothing to worry about. If you want your kids to have a stronger immune system the best thing you could do is make sure they don't grow up in a sterile environment.
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 11:39 AM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

There was no medical reason for this fact.

I don't know how old your mother-in-law is, but there may have been a cultural reason for it. In the U.S., at least, there were pendulum swings in the middle of the last century about breastfeeding, and there are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Americans walking around perfectly fine even though they weren't breast-fed - according to the CDC, in 1971 only 25% of women breast-fed their kids, for instance. The antibodies passed from mother to child are most important in the baby's first year of life; after that, they build their own immune systems.

In terms of strengthening your future children's immune systems, well, breastfeeding certainly won't hurt (if your wife is able, of course). Don't live in a too-clean environment, wiping everything down with bleach wipes every thirty seconds. Let the kid eat a handful of dirt occasionally. Let them interact with the world as it exists, with its dirt and germs and such (within reason, of course - you don't need to let the kid play in a garbage pit).
posted by rtha at 11:44 AM on June 26, 2009

Who knows? There certainly isn't any scientific evidence that there will be an effect on your child's health. But sure, there could be, I guess.

There might be something you could do to improve your child's immune system, but there's nothing that's been definitively demonstrated in a double-blind controlled study to be effective. Other than vaccination, of course.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:48 AM on June 26, 2009

I was not breastfeed and I have a GREAT immune system. Also, contrary to popular pro-breastfeeding propaganda, I:

-did not die of some obscure disease
-do not have brain damage
-managed to succeed in intellectual and professional pursuits
-have an immune system
-am perfectly well physically developed

My daughter, who had cancer and was only breastfeed for about a week, never got sick (other than the genetic defect she was born with that caused the cancer) and had very few infections and other problems from being immunocompromised during chemotherapy. She slept well, developed well and was happy.

My friend's child, ONLY breastfed and delayed vaccination and attachment-parented and co-slept and coddled to the nines, has horrible allergies, seems to constantly have ear infections and other problems, does not sleep through the night, etc.

THE POINT: EVERY child and EVERY family is different and has different needs. Please cut the "omg there was no medical reason not to breastfeed" judgment pile-on as other answers here have suggested. There is much more likely a genetic, medical or lifestyle component leading to your perception of a less-well-functioning immune system (which may only be a PERCEPTION and not reality, since it is undiagnosed by a professional), and to the extent your children share those genetic, medical or lifestyle components you may similarly perceive some less-functioning immune system in your children.

Whether or not your wife was breastfed is the LEAST of your concerns.
posted by bunnycup at 11:52 AM on June 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

In a nutshell, you're asking (in part) if your wife can genetically pass on characteristics acquired during her lifetime to her children? No -- that's Lamarckian genetics, which has been pretty thoroughly discredited.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 11:53 AM on June 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Immunity depends on a long list of things, and being breastfed as a child is way at the bottom, if it's even on the list at all.

Yep. My sister and I weren't breastfed, and we have some weird immune (and autoimmune) issues, but you know who else in my family has the same problems? Our father.

Nearly every doctor and specialist I've ever seen (and god knows, I've had a ton of them, including rheumatologists, immunologists, and geneticists) has essentally remarked that these things tend to run in families and can come from the mother's or father's side. So I'm virtually certain that I would have the exact same immune issues as I do now even if I had been breastfed for years (indeed, my sister's kids have some inclination to the same autoimmune issues, and they were all breastfed).
posted by scody at 11:53 AM on June 26, 2009

I wasn't breastfed either. I'd say my immune system's pretty normal.
posted by katillathehun at 11:55 AM on June 26, 2009

My husband was breastfed and as an adult he has an autoimmune disorder and gets every bug. My sister and I were formula fed and we are both exceptionally healthy. Other factors beyond breastfeeding are far more important.
posted by saucysault at 11:55 AM on June 26, 2009

A lot of people, breastfed or not, tend to get "whatever is going around." Sounds like you are putting a lot of blame and pressure on your wife and it also sounds like you aren't expecting any kids at the moment. Maybe you should work out this issue before you do.
posted by pinky at 12:03 PM on June 26, 2009

Anecdotal: I was breastfed, as were my two siblings. I am immunocompromised and have been frequently ill throughout my life; they are both very healthy and rarely missed so much as a day of school.

I breastfed my daughter, who's now almost seven, and she's literally been sick three times in her life.

I'm a big believer in breastfeeding, but I think that you're looking for connections that aren't really there.
posted by MeghanC at 12:06 PM on June 26, 2009

I have no idea whether I was breastfed, or for how long. Presumably, though, my brother and I had the same history (I can't think of a reason why Mom would have breastfed one of us and not the other), so it's a safe bet that, if breastfeeding had any effect on immunity, we'd both have similar illness patterns.

And yet we were polar opposites when we were kids - my brother got sick a lot, but it was always a mild case, and something that tons of other kids were getting and the pediatrician was just keeping blank stacks of prescriptions on hand so when another kid came in he could just say "yep, I'm seeing a lot of this" and fill in the name. I, on the other hand, rarely got sick, but whenever I did, it was a real doozy -- either a common cold that got really stubborn and lasted for a month, or a stomach bug that required a hospital stay because my pediatrician got paranoid that I'd get dehydrated and she wanted me on an IV drip over night, or something just so weird that the pediatrician would frown over me, puzzled, and then get other doctors from down the hall to come in, saying "Burt, c'mere, I haven't seen this since Med school, what do you think?"

So I'd say that while the initial few days of breastfeeding, which contain the colustrum, are important for the basic immunity foundation, after that the kid's own individual constitution takes over.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:08 PM on June 26, 2009

You don't have kids yet, do you?

When you have children, the world seems like a minefield. Suddenly there is something that is more precious than life itself, and every time I hear about the death or serious injury of a child, a chill goes through my heart in a way that didn't when was childless.

You have a perception that your wife has a weak immune system ("she will tend to get whatever is going around"). This may or may not actually be true. Even if she does indeed have a weak immune system, there are a lot of factors that might be contributing to that. Some of those factors might be genetic, others might be environmental. That her mother fed her formula instead of breastmilk is not likely one of them.

Babies are genetic crapshoots. You don't know how the X and Y, or X and X, will all mix together and sort themselves out and it is impossible to predict beforehand. There are food allergies. Autism. There are some relatively common congenital issues (Cystic Fibrosis, Tay Sachs, and so forth) and there are some rather more rare but devastating conditions (for example, Ataxia-Telangiectasia). Chorionic Villus sampling will identify some of those issues but not all of them. There are a lot of things that you just can't plan for.

Little kids are petri dishes. Unless you want to raise your child in a bubble, which I don't recommend, your kids will be sharing germs with other kids, and that is a good thing.In short, even if your children do inherit your wife's less-than-robust immune system, that will not become clear until your kids are in elementary school. And at that point, if they are otherwise fine but just have a tendency to catch whatever is going around, then you thank your lucky stars.
posted by ambrosia at 12:12 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Breastfeeding is great, but it's not magic. Stop worrying about it, it's completely immaterial.

Depending on your age and where you're from, it's possible that most of the people you know were never breastfed, not even once. It was a matter less of convenience, and more of conventional wisdom and a lack of bothering to train anyone to teach women the facts about breastfeeding, so cut your MIL some slack already.

For example, each time my mother gave birth, in two different states, four years apart, in a private hospital and in a military clinic, she was told by the nurses within hours of the birth that she had no milk and therefore her babies needed bottles so they wouldn't starve to death. This is not how lactation actually works, this is simply the ignorant counseling the ignorant.
posted by padraigin at 12:14 PM on June 26, 2009

My sister was breastfed for more than 2 years (!). I was also breastfed, but for less time. She's always sick and I'm not (however, I had my tonsils removed when I was 4).
posted by clearlydemon at 12:23 PM on June 26, 2009

Anecdotal evidence really sucks for stuff like this. You can be breastfed and sick as a dog, or formula-fed and incredibly healthy, or vice versa. The point is that, if you look at a population as a whole (i.e., you don't look at individuals), breastfeeding confers certain benefits to babies. You absolutely cannot look at one person and draw causal conclusions about their immune system based on whether or not that person was breastfed.

No offense meant here, but the "well my kids were formula fed/breastfed and look how they turned out" stuff really pushes my researcher buttons. You have no idea how healthy they would or would not have been if things had been different, and you can't know.

posted by emilyd22222 at 12:23 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Breastfeeding is great, but it's not magic. Stop worrying about it, it's completely immaterial.

Well, it's completely immaterial whether the mother was breastfed or not. There are certainly benefits to the baby from being breastfed; it's not immaterial in that regard.

What's with all the anecdotes? This question seems to lend itself to facts.

OP: There is, so far as I know, no evidence of any kind that whether the mother was breastfed as an infant makes any difference of any sort with regard to the health of the baby. Put it out of your mind. There are definite health benefits to the baby from being breastfed (and some significant ones for the mother as well). I assume you know all the short term effects for the baby; long term effects appear to include but not be limited to reduced risk of certain diseases such as diabetes and somewhat higher IQ when measured on standardized tests (yes, controlled for other factors). Long term effects for the mother appear to include things like reduced risk of heart disease.

But, to reiterate:

Will they similarly be affected, even if my wife breastfeeds them?


If so, is there anything we can do to mitigate the issue?

No, since there appears to be no issue except the understandable one of a soon-to-be-dad freaking out over his impending fatherdom.
posted by Justinian at 12:28 PM on June 26, 2009

nthing A Terrible Llama here. It's something of a stretch to blame your wife's general health on your mother-in-law's decision to bottle feed.

Your wife may find herself in the position of not being to breastfeed, or perhaps not even wanting to (which is her right). In any event, it's not really your decision; it's hers. The best you can do is prepare yourself to be supportive of whatever decision she makes.
posted by DWRoelands at 12:28 PM on June 26, 2009

There's extremists on both sides. Instead of reading my experience just talk to your wife's ob/gyn.
posted by doorsfan at 12:38 PM on June 26, 2009

To add to the anecdotal. while completely agreeing with emilyd22222, my pediatrician told my mother that the reason we seldomley were sick and, when we were, we had mild cases of M,M & R, etc. it was because we grew up in the sewer that is New Orleans. I think he was saying exercising your immune system makes it stronger. Based upon that it seems like not being told to "rub some dirt on it" might have the same negative effect as not being breast fed. He also said that NOLA had a lower incidence of polio than the rest of the country for the same reason. Even though a DR. I expect everything he said was anecdotal with no real scientific basis.

The real question for me is how does not breast feeding a male child affect his later relationships with women.
posted by Carbolic at 12:42 PM on June 26, 2009

You are overthinking this. Let your wife decide if she wants to breastfeed or not as she is the one with the teats, not you. She can talk to her doctor about any concerns.

BTW, you might be causing your wife great anxiety with your assumptions and insinuations about how her mother did whatever was most convienient (as opposed to loving, caring, or best at the time to get by). Stress and anxiety will weaken the immune system billions of times more / faster than not being breastfed.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:42 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've know people who were breastfed that are chronically a lot more ill than I am. No breast milk for me and I'm rarely sick.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:25 PM on June 26, 2009

You know who else probably isn't malnourished and disease-prone from lack of breastfeeding? Adopted people.
posted by genghis at 2:49 PM on June 26, 2009

breastfeeding might have helped her a little, but not hugely. washing her hands regularly will probably benefit her health more than breastfeeding ever would have.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:24 PM on June 26, 2009

not to say she has bad hygeine, but people don't wash their hands as much as they could to prevent those little bugs from making the rounds. that's all.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:25 PM on June 26, 2009

Nthing everyone else. But adding: do not pressure your wife on this. many women are not able to breastfeed and if your wife happens to be one of them, your pressure will be awful for her. it could even contribute to post partum depression because many women feel like they are failures as mothers if this happens.

yes, breast is best, but so is being wealthy and having a huge extended family that is loving and local and many other things over which you wind up having little control.

also, a correction. while Lamarckian genetics has been discredited, there are epigenetic ways of transmitting behavior through generations. for example, if you take a rat from a not especially nurturing mama and foster it to a nurturing one, that rat will be more nurturing to her own offspring and down through the generations. this happens because the environment affects gene expression.

however, it doesn't mean the fact that your wife wasn't breastfed means that she won't be able to. do encourage, don't push or blame.
posted by Maias at 3:31 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your mother-in-law probably didn't breastfeed because there were periods of history in the US where doctors told women that formula was better than breastmilk. You probably shouldn't judge.
posted by ishotjr at 4:09 PM on June 26, 2009

It kinda sounds like some people are reading a bit too much into the question. I don't think asking for some advice about breastfeeding means the guy is "angry" or is going to be "one of those dads". I think Justinian is right on with the "soon-to-be-dad freaking out over his impending fatherdom". Seems a bit harsh, is all.
posted by orme at 4:47 PM on June 26, 2009

I was not able to breastfeed my premature twins who had eating difficulties at birth. Now, at almost 5 years old, they are both healthy and fine. One has gotten sick an average amount for a kid. Two or three colds a year. The other NEVER gets sick. They both got a case of hand/foot/mouth disease when they were 2, but that is it for one of them. They were formula fed for two years (graduated to a toddler formula after a year) and always took a vitamin supplement.

Breastfeeding is great if you can do it. But it doesn't really matter that much after the first year as far as overall, long-term health.
posted by Bueller at 5:41 PM on June 26, 2009

Dude, I-and many of my generation-were fed a homemade doctor approved recipe of evaporated milk, corn syrup, and boiled water as infants (along with vitamin drops and early solids.)

We lived.

Nursing rocks-I breastfed my own children-but I'd not blame your wife's immune system on the formula.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:01 PM on June 26, 2009

My immune system is garbage and my mother breastfed me. My brother has also had a lot of immune-related problems like allergies, and he was breastfed. My younger sister is healthy as an ox with an occasional bout of flu every four years or so - she was formula fed. Sure, it's anecdotal, but at the same time I feel like the breastfeed/not breastfeed thing has a lot more to do with the social politics of what women should and should not do with their bodies. Much like telling pregnant ladies to insist upon "natural" childbirth, etc.
posted by SassHat at 9:40 PM on June 26, 2009

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