How long after stopping breastfeeding does a baby retain immunity?

baby bottle holder
Amazing how many creepy baby drawings are out there

You know how you have to get a shot every week to keep immunity against Chicken Pox, the Mumps, etc? Yeah me neither. That’s because once you get immunity, you’ve got it. It can weaken, and that’s a different matter.

I’ll point out right here that this article says “if you can’t breastfeed, you can’t. Your child isn’t going to suffer horribly because of it although there might be some things to look out for.”

The reason you’re probably here is because you’re worried about what will happen because you can’t. While I’m not claiming not to worry, as there are some issues, it’s not the end-all that the internet makes it out to be.

I’ll give you the short answer here and you can read the rest if you want the backing. It doesn’t matter how long you breastfed as long as you did it for the first couple of days of your child’s life. That’s the only time the immune system is transferred, however the immune system is supported thereafter via breastfeeding.

If stopping breastfeeding, how long does the immune support last?

What you’re asking is a misconception involving your immune system, and immune support. These are different things.

Immune support involves passing probiotics via breastmilk to the gut, less stress to the baby and some general goodness added by bonding with the baby and letting it do what it was designed to do. Imagine it’s orange juice and a sunlamp in the winter. These things will make you happier and less stressed and less prone to become sick.

There’s also a secondary topical antiviral and antibiotic effect of breast milk where it touches.

Immune support is not the immune system

The immune system runs on immune support. However you can support the immune system with decent formula, keeping your baby happy and unstressed, and not stressing yourself the eff out. Stressed parents = stressed baby.

Think of immune support as gas for the imunovan.

How does the baby get my immune system?

Breast diagramIf you’re breastfeeding, your immune system is passed to the baby via colostrum. You transfer antibodies/antigens to your baby during the first day or two of breastfeeding colostrum (the golden liquid). After a day or so, babies experience something called gut closure, where the stomach stops being able to absorb the antibodies/antigens found in the colostrum.

There’ll still be the topical antibodies and support of the immune system from breastfeeding thereafter.

They’ve also been sharing quite a bit of your immune system since before they came out of you.

What this means

If you managed to breastfeed on the first few days of your child’s life, congratulations, you transferred your antibodies to your newborn. No amount of breastfeeding after four days will give them an immune response you possess. You’re not a terrible mother if you need to switch to formula.

If not, you might want to consider keeping them out of the public eye for the first couple of months until you get the first round of vaccines, but you don’t have to.

Topical antibiotic effect of breast milk

Imagine your breast milk as containing a crap ton of virus and bacteria fighting properties. Any surface it touches is going to be wiped clean of some amount of germs and viruses. Now look at a baby who’s had any milk, look at the surfaces covered. These include large swaths of the face, the mouth, possibly the nasal cavities due to sneezing.

The antigens/antibodies tend to topically fight bacteria and infection on coated surfaces for a short time, however not all surfaces are coated at all times, and germs are going to get through wherever they can, so it’s like a screen door with a large hole if you want to consider the topical immunity.

But… but… but….

Don’t get me wrong, breastfeeding is best feeding. The stomach bacteria produced by breast milk as opposed to formula are markedly different and theoretically should work better for your baby, but…

Regardless of how little colostrum your baby ingested in the first few days, your baby picked up some antigens through it. Anything else is gravy. You’re probably not a horrible person. Anyone who says you’re a horrible person because you couldn’t breastfeed for any reason is probably just being a judgemental piece of shit.

Bacteria are absurdly tiny and reproduce at an alarming rate. If you produce any milk for a baby via pumping or breastfeeding, you’re giving your child the necessary intake ingredients. You’ll need to hold them, comfort them, etc, but you’re fine.

Alternately I’m completely wrong and you are a horrible person and you’re harming your baby irreparably. Since most of the blogs on this don’t bother to do any research other than quoting another blog on the thing that didn’t do any research and quoted another blog on the thing, perhaps I’m a bit out of touch with how it’s supposed to be done. I’m just going by what multiple immunologists have written, peer reviewed papers, etc.

After several months of formula feeding exclusively, I’ve got a happy healthy kiddo. Our friends who breast feed exclusively have multiple ear infections, skin issues, and more. Everyone’s circumstances are different. This isn’t me advocating formula, we had to go that route. Our kid ended up fine.

The below links both back me up and contradict me.

More reading:

After note

After two years of this being one of the most commented on and misread or misunderstood pieces I’ve written I’m closing down comments and deleting them. You can agree with me, disagree with me, but I’m tired of the message to women who can’t breastfeed being posted in my comments section that they’re somehow faulty, evil, or harming their kids.

Breast is best, but if you’re ripping your tits off and miserable constantly that’s not good for you or the baby. You’re not going to fuck up a child for life by giving them formula (although there are certain exemptions for this within the first 48 hours post birth, I’d definitely try to breastfeed for that period).

If someone says they tried to breastfeed until they cried and consulted several lactation experts, were bleeding into the milk, in pain all the time and you come and tell them how easy it was with a hot towel and just “actually trying” you’re a horrible unempathetic person and can go be that somewhere else.

So in the end, try your best, talk to your doctor. If that’s not working, remember that formula for one baby during the time they actually need it will cost you between $1200 and $1700, and it’s not worth making the first year of your child’s life into a horrible memory of pain and agony and an underfed baby.

  • Jennifer

    I have a four month old, and I have been feeling really down because when he was one month old, I gave him one bottle of formula. I was uneducated about gut-flora or the harm that formula could do. It seems pretty evident that breast-feeding exclusively is more beneficial than breastfeeding while supplementing with formula.

    My question is, how harmful is feeding a one month old, one bottle of formula, one time? I’ve researched and researched and most of what I’ve read seems to say that after that one bottle, the damage is done and it’s irreversible, making me feel as though all my hard work to breastfeed my baby exclusively is pointless now. With that being said, most of the studies seem to look at Mother’s who continuously supplement and my case is somewhat unique because I only gave him formula once.

    What are your opinions?

    • You’re operating here under the belief that the formula’s bacterial load is capable of destroying a colony of currently healthy gut bacteria. In order to do this the bottle of formula, let’s say 4 ounces considering the age? Has to first kill off the native bacteria through some sort of antibiotic effect, then it has to supplant the gut bacteria, and then replace it with something that’s harmful while fending off all future bacterial loads.

      I’m sure you can find someone out there who says it’s terrible, but you’ve made it past the first couple of weeks and now you’re dealing with a stomach that’s getting bacteria from everywhere. Be that formula, airborne, on your skin.

      Something to keep in mind is that people have been breastfeeding for all of eternity, and bottle feeding relatively recently in human history. While you might want to promote the all natural, keep in mind that all natural 200 years ago meant that you didn’t name a kid until they were one because they had a pretty good chance of dying. One round of antibiotics can kill all gut bacteria, similar with colloidal silver. Babies don’t die or become deformed after either of these events, so why would one bottle of formula?

      Also, if you’re capable of producing enough milk and breast feeding exclusively that’s a correct statement that breast exclusive is best. If you’re not able to produce enough milk, or you’re stressing out over the thing and dumping stress hormones into the milk, you’re not doing baby any favors. Hungry stressed baby is not a happy one.

      I’d say you’re fine. Feel free to point me to any of the articles that claim that one bottle of formula will forever set them down a path of badness and I’ll spend some time tonight looking at them to see if there’s any merit.

  • Jennifer

    Shortly after the formula bottle, he got a virus. That made me even more suspicious that his gut flora was damaged, premature closure occurred, he wasn’t getting my antibodies, ect… He’s also susceptible to type 1 diabetes and the above referenced study suggests that one bottle may trigger that as well, if I’m interpreting it correctly.

    Oh and I am and always have been able to produce enough milk. He’s satisfied and gaining well. The only reason he got formula was because I drank alcohol after he’d fallen asleep one night. I thought that what I had pumped would be enough if he woke. It was but even after hours and hours – the three beers I drank were still in my system the next morning (according to those alcohol breast milk test strips). It was either give him breast milk with alcohol in it or give him formula and as I said before, I wasn’t aware that formula would be harmful at the time. Needless to say, it’s a huge regret of mine and that’s why what I want more information.

    • What you linked to – that’s a piece entitled “Just One Bottle Won’t Hurt – or Will it?” that contains a significant amount of random studies with no disputes listed designed to support the argument that one bottle will undo all the work you’ve done. However, take a close look at the piece you linked to – they’re specifically referencing neonates pre-gut-closure on page two (first three days of life.)

      The only thing that makes sense in it in your contexts is “infant formula should not be given to a breastfed baby before gut closure occurs”. That happened at day three according to the linked pdf, or day two according to what I can locate.

      There’s the phrase over and over again “in susceptible families…” which means “if you’re capable of getting it”. No definition of what susceptible families is…

      So, let’s run through what I can – page one you don’t have to worry about, you’re not dealing with an open-gut baby. Page two “infant formula should not be given to a breastfed baby before gut closure” well, that was up until the end of day two, you did that after. Second bullet point on page 2 also involves milk proteins for cow’s milk in the newborn nursery (hospital’s,) this has nothing to do with you. Third bullet point builds off of the second, mentions early exposure but doesn’t define what early is (it’s the first three days of life by gut closure logic.)

      And that’s it.

      Unless you poured a bottle of formula down your baby’s mouth at day two or three you’re not even referenced for this piece…

      Now, as for the virus. I’ve got my eight month old, and my friends have their eleven month old. Mine is exclusively bottle fed post gut closure at day two (think we started at a week,) theirs is exclusively breast fed. In terms of being sick, we win hands down for the less sick baby. However both babies have had several viruses since being born. It’s pretty much the territory with being a baby.

      You’re fine… you haven’t done any damage, and the PDF you’ve linked to involves three day olds.