Always Kiss Me Goodnight: An Explanation of the Enteromammary Pathway

IMG_0710Many times new moms will ask if it’s OK to breastfeed when they are sick. Since germs are passed through mucus and spit, people tend to think they will be passed by breast milk as well. However, the body is fascinating in that breastfeeding mothers actually protect their babies—not infect them—by breastfeeding when they are ill.

I remember when my doula came over for my postpartum checkup with my second child, Alice. We were talking about avoiding illness with a 3-year-old and a newborn in the house, and laughing at the varied advice I had received.

“Kiss everyone in your house, every day,” the doula told me. “It will help your body defend against all the germs everyone brings home.” It was sweet, but I couldn’t imagine how that could possibly work.

You can imagine my amazement when I ran across research on the enteromammary pathway. It’s the system by which the mother’s body acts and reacts to stimuli such as germs and viruses by building up immunity that gets passed directly to the baby via breast milk. It’s why my doula told me I could keep my baby well by kissing the other people in my home.

The enteromammary pathway begins with mom’s nose and mouth. Germs or viruses come in contact with her there, which alerts the body to their presence. The Mucosa-associated lymphatic tissue, or MALT, includes the gut, lungs, mammary glands, salivary glands and the genital tract. These areas communicate through via plasma cells that travel throughout the body. So when plasma cells encounter a virus or germ on mom’s body, she begins making antibodies that appear in her breast milk. This is before any illness has ever even occurred.

Now, when we say “ill” we are talking flu, viruses, the common cold. Not life-threatening diseases. However, a recent study did show that even HIV-positive mothers can reduce the mother-to-infant risk of HIV through exclusive, extended (past one year of age) breastfeeding.

It’s amazing what the body can do. It’s even more amazing, but not surprising, that after spending nine months building this little person inside us, our bodies continue to be able to protect and nurture them Earthside as well.

Erin Burt is a breastfeeding, babywearing mother of three. She lives and writes in Fort Worth, Texas.




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