Infant & Toddler Health

How to Support Your Baby's Immune System When Breastfeeding Isn't an Option

How to Support Your Baby's Immune System When Breastfeeding Isn't an Option

When you’re expecting a baby, it’s only natural to want to give her your very best. You may already be childproofing, researching organic baby products, and planning every possible advantage for your little one. I know that’s how it was for me.

I was going to be the perfect mom—I’d read wonderful stories, and sing lullabies, and we’d create fun art projects together. And of course I’d breastfeed.

We’ve all heard that breastfeeding is best. And don’t get me wrong: it is. Breastfeeding not only gives your newborn nature’s perfect food, it also supports baby’s developing immune system.1,2 You see, within our digestive tracts (where most of the immune system is also located) lives a thriving community of trillions of bacteria, collectively called the microbiome.3 This is really fortunate because ideally, about 85% of the microbiome is comprised of friendly microbes called probiotics. These good guys work with the body in lots of ways to encourage robust immune and overall health.

When your baby is first born, his gut is almost sterile. As he drinks his mother’s milk though, essential microbes are introduced to his digestive system. But the best laid plans don’t always go the way we imagined, and sometimes breastfeeding just isn’t in the cards.

Surprise: It Doesn’t Always Come Naturally

Ever since I can remember I had this idea that breastfeeding was what loving moms do—and that it was the most natural thing in the world. So it was kind of a shock when the nurse put my amazing tiny son in my arms and he had no interest whatsoever in the meal in front of him.

I kept trying, but I knew in my heart he wasn’t getting much of anything—even though the hospital lactation specialists assured me he was. And as the time for each new feeding rolled along, I began to feel dread rather than anticipation. Something had to be terribly wrong with me—my body wasn’t capable of feeding my own baby!

The lactation specialists kept coming by my room, but honestly these particular individuals weren’t particularly warm or supportive. One even offhandedly said that it would be harder for me to breastfeed because my nipples were partially inverted. This confused me because, well, nothing looked abnormal to me and no doctor had ever mentioned anything wasn’t right. So now in addition to all the stress of not getting enough nutrition to my helpless baby, I suddenly felt the breasts I had always thought were beautiful were now somehow gross and pathological. And let’s face it—for most of us, the time right after childbirth isn’t great for body image to begin with.

By the second night the doctors seemed concerned, telling me my son was low on fluids, and had lost weight. They said if I wanted to bring him home with me when I’d be discharged the next morning, I’d have to supplement with formula.

Determination Dies Hard

To protect my son’s health I started him on formula right away, but I also bought a pump and vowed to build my milk supply. Every three hours around the clock I pumped. That was in addition to bottle-feeding my adorable son a mixture of formula and the meager amounts I pumped, bathing him, changing him, and making an exhausted effort to spend quality fun time together. Not to mention trying to keep house.

I barely slept. I barely ate. Days and nights blurred into one another. I was ragged and jagged and I cried all the time. I felt like a total failure. I grew to hate the groaning hum of that breast pump even more than the sound of chalk on a blackboard, or the whine of mosquitoes—or maybe even crying babies! One night after three and a half weeks I had pumped out the most milk ever—a whopping two ounces. I had to admit this was beyond futile.

Frankly, it was an incredible relief to put away the pump and surrender to the bottles. Finally there was actually time to bond with my sweet baby. I began to feel real joy in motherhood. But there was still a gnawing sense of guilt and inadequacy lurking in the back of my mind about my decision to bottle-feed.

Other Ways to Jumpstart Your Baby’s Gut Health

Fast-forward 28 years. That tiny wide-eyed infant is now a healthy young man, as is his younger brother (who was also bottle-fed). Yes, without question breastfeeding is best, but if you’ve decided on formula, relax in knowing recent research affirms that bottle-fed babies turn out fine too.4

I realize now that I wasn’t alone; countless other moms are unable to breastfeed, or have chosen not to because it simply isn’t for them. The fact that we’re often looked down on for this or made to feel guilty is just plain sad.

The time is long overdue for moms to unite in sisterhood, putting an end to judgment and bottle-shaming once and for all. Instead, it’s lots more productive to empower one another by focusing on the many ways to give our babies’ microbiomes a terrific start, no matter how they’re fed:

• Hugs and Kisses: Showing your baby the overflowing love in your heart also introduces her to the friendly flora in your microbiome!5 So lavish your little miracle with kisses every chance you get, and enjoy the close warmth of skin-to-skin contact when you snuggle.

• Vaginal Birth: If you had a vaginal delivery, take comfort in knowing you’ve already introduced valuable probiotics from your birth canal to his body and begun to enrich his immune system.6

• Probiotic Supplements: Applying a probiotic infant powder gently to your baby’s tongue with your finger introduces her digestive tract to a nice variety of helpful microbes to support her gut health.7 She’s probably picking up some probiotics from your finger as well—a total win-win! When she’s ready as the years pass, switch to a high quality kids probiotic.

• Gentle Bathing: During baby’s first weeks it’s best to postpone cleansing products, and instead wash him with plain water and a soft washcloth. When you do introduce soap and shampoo, avoid antimicrobial products—these indiscriminately kill probiotics along with undesirable bacterial strains.

• Self Care: When you relax and refresh, not only will you have more energy for your baby; your microbiome also benefits, which means you’ll share more friendly probiotics with your baby during cuddles and kisses! It’s also helpful to nurture your own gut with a probiotic formula tailored for moms. If you’re bottle feeding, allowing Dad or the grandparents to handle some feedings gives you time to recharge while your baby is lovingly introduced to helpful microbes from other family members (Another win-win!).

• Milk Banks: Some moms actually produce more milk than their babies need, and donate it to milk banks. If this service is available in your area, you may want to consider feeding your baby probiotic-rich screened milk from other healthy moms in addition to or instead of formula.

• Whole, healthy foods: When she’s ready for solids, clean foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains encourage your child’s gut balance. Many of these foods, such as bananas, apples, and asparagus, contain prebiotic fibers that provide the perfect nutrition for probiotic strains! Cultured foods like yogurt and kefir add even more of those little good guys to the mix.

If you can (and want to) breastfeed, you’re giving your baby a precious gift. But one of the most valuable things I’ve learned as a mom (from my own wonderful mom!) is that none of us will ever be the perfect parent, and all we can give our kids is our honest, raw, multi-dimensional selves. It’s nice to finally realize that there isn’t only one right way to be a great mom. And no matter what the source of our baby's’ first meals, we can feel empowered by the knowledge that we ultimately have lots of ways to give our kids’ developing immune systems an excellent start.

If you have overcome the pitfalls of modern parenting and breastfeeding, want to feel more supported in your own journey, or simply want to empower future mothers, we want to hear your story. Join us on Instagram this month as we share our experiences and work to inspire real change with our #EmpoweredNursing campaign.

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1. Savino, F., Pelle, E., Palumeri, E., Oggero, R., & Miniero, R. (2007). Lactobacillus reuteri (American Type Culture Collection Strain 55730) Versus Simethicone in the Treatment of Infantile Colic: A Prospective Randomized Study. PEDIATRICS, 119(1), e124-e130. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-1222

2. Kang, Y., Cai, Y., & Zhang, H. (2016). Gut Microbiota and Allergy/Asthma: From Pathogenesis to New Therapeutic Strategies. Allergologia et Immunopathologia. doi:10.1016/j.aller.2016.08.004

3. Panda, S., Guarner, F., & Manichanh, C. (2014). Structure and Functions of the Gut Microbiome. Endocrine, metabolic & immune disorders drug targets, 4, 290–299.

4. Developmental Status of 1-Year-Old Infants Fed Breast Milk, Cow's Milk Formula, or Soy Formula. (2012). PEDIATRICS, 129(6), X16-X16. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-3121d

5. Christensen, G., & Brüggemann, H. (2014). Bacterial Skin Commensals and their Role as Host Guardians. Beneficial Microbes, 5(2), 201-215.

6. Neu, J., & Rushing, J. (2011). Cesarean Versus Vaginal Delivery: Long-term Infant Outcomes and the Hygiene Hypothesis. Clinics in Perinatology, 38(2), 321-331. doi:10.1016/j.clp.2011.03.008

7. Pecquet, S., Baglatzi, L., Gavrili, S., Stamouli, K., Zachaki, S., Favre, L., … Costalos, C. (2016). Effect of Infant Formula Containing a Low Dose of the Probiotic Bifidobacterium lactis CNCM I-3446 on Immune and Gut Functions in C-Section Delivered Babies: A Pilot Study. Clinical Medicine Insights: Pediatrics, 11. doi:10.4137/cmped.s33096


Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.