I have heard that mother's milk is preferred over other baby foods, because it contains immunoglobulins (secretory IgA), and other essential nutrients.

But why is mother's milk so special? Any mammalian milk, such as the widely available cow's milk, should presumably have a similar composition as human milk? What makes mother's milk in specific so healthy?

Could the mere act of breastfeeding, in itself, lend to some beneficial outcome?

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    $\begingroup$ I think I read a comment on the parenting stack exchange about this topic, and it spoke on the benefits of mother and child bonding. $\endgroup$
    – Ro Siv
    Mar 12, 2016 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ Just taking the immunoglobulins alone, I would ask you this: do you think cows have immunoglobulins likely to match the needs of a human infant as precisely as the human child's own mother (same pathogens, same environment, etc.) or that a cow's immunoglobulins are more likely a better match for that cow's own offspring? This goes across the board for all mammals in all differing locations (i.e. a mother's milk in Malaysia will have a different antibody composition than one in, say, Canada. $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2016 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ Anecdotal evidence (n=1): My 3yo daughter caught chickenpox and we have a 5 month old baby too. They are often close together and touch a lot. Baby is breastfed by mother who had chickenpox already (so she has antibodies). Baby is breastfed and didn't catch the (highly infectious) chickenpox. $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2016 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ @TomášKafka: you seem to be into something. WebMD endorses your anecdotal evidence: webmd.com/vaccines/tc/chickenpox-varicella-what-happens (2nd bullet point). $\endgroup$ Mar 13, 2016 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @anongoodnurse Adding to the issue of immunoglobulins; pasteurization (which is performed basically on all milk sold to consumers) will decrease the amount of immunoglobulins quite a bit. So even if immunoglobulins from cow's milk would be useful, they are mostly lost in pasteurized milk. Related, Chantry et al. (2009, J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr.) is studying the effect of flash-heat pasteurization on immunoglobulins in human breast milk, since flash-heating is used as a way to reduce vertical HIV transmission. $\endgroup$ Mar 18, 2016 at 13:05

2 Answers 2


The phrase "Breast is best" is a hotly debated one (source: The Guardian and personal communications with many folks). The reason why we don't want to feed infants cow's milk is, however, anything but debated, because

Cow's milk does not provide enough:

  • Vitamin E
  • Iron
  • Essential fatty acids

And because it contains too much:

  • Protein
  • Sodium
  • Potassium (source: NIH's MedLine)

  • Further, mother's milk is generally free of pathogens, cow's milk may not be (source: Australian Unity). However note that, unfortunately, HIV can hitchhike within the maternal white blood cells to the infant (Quintanilla, 1996)

There are many benefits to mother and infant of breast milk. These benefits are, however, typically compared to the benefits over formula. No study will compare the benefits of mother's milk over cow's milk, simply because infants should never be fed cow's milk.

The benefits of breast milk for the infant are the following:

  • Breast milk a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat, all provided in an easily digestible form, as compared to formula;
  • Breastfeeding lowers baby's risk of having asthma or allergies;
  • Plus, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, without any formula, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhea. They also have fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor (source: WebMD).
  • Breast milk contains a variety of growth factors, including EGF, BDNF and GDNF that may promote vascularization and neural development (Ballard & Morrow, 2014).

There are a host of immunoprotective factors present in breast milk. These proteins offer protection against diarrhoea, food allergies and infections. The immunoprotective components of human milk include, but are not limited to:

  • Lactoferrin : binds to iron, thus rendering it unavailable to viruses, fungi and bacteria, which is an effective means of inhibiting their growth (Ballard & Morrow, 2014);
  • Lysozymes: destroy viruses and bacteria by disrupting their integrity (source: NIH's MedLine);
  • Secretory IgA: immunoglobulins that destroy viruses and bacteria. Secretory IgA is believed to survive the harsh conditions of the intestines, especially in infants and is therefore active in the intestines of the baby. IgA can bind to pathological viruses and block their receptors necessary to invade the epithelial cells lining the intestinal wall. It also clumps bacteria together through cross-linking, which may affect their dispersion. Bacterial cell membranes, like shown in Salmonella, may be disrupted by IgA binding (Mantis et al., 2011). As mentioned by anongoodnurse in the comments; because mother and baby share the same habitat and hence encounter the same pathogens, the antibodies produced by the mother will be more beneficial to the baby than any other mammal on earth;
  • Human milk contains a variety of chemokines and cytokines that can cross the intestinal barrier, where they communicate with baby's cells to influence immune activity. Many cytokines and chemokines have multiple functions, and milk-borne cytokines may be grouped broadly into those that enhance inflammation or defend against infection, and those that reduce inflammation (Ballard & Morrow, 2014);
  • Bifidus factor: promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut and limits the growth of disease-causing bacteria (source: NIH's MedLine).
  • A variety of immune cells, including macrophages, T cells, stem cells, and lymphocytes. In early lactation, the breastfed infant may consume as many as 1010 maternal leukocytes per day. They can differentiate into dendritic cells that stimulate infant T-cell activity (Ballard & Morrow, 2014).

  • Breast milk changes in composition according to the infant's needs, something cow's milk can never accomplish; The first fluid produced by mothers after delivery is colostrum, which is distinct in volume, appearance and composition. Colostrum is produced in low quantities in the first few days postpartum and is rich in immunologic components such as secretory IgA, lactoferrin, leukocytes, as well as developmental factors such as epidermal growth factor. It contains relatively low concentrations of lactose, indicating its primary functions to be immunologic and trophic rather than nutritional. Levels of sodium, chloride and magnesium are higher and levels of potassium and calcium are lower in colostrum than later milk (Ballard & Morrow, 2014).

For more complete reviews on the immunochemistry of breast milk, please refer to Ballard & Morrow (2014) and Mantis et al. (2011)

The mother also benefits:

  • Breastfeeding burns extra calories, so it can help mothers to lose pregnancy weight faster;
  • Breast feeding releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth;
  • Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It may lower the risk of osteoporosis;
  • Breastfeeding has been linked to higher IQ scores in later childhood in some studies (source: WebMD);
  • During lactation, menstruation ceases, offering a form of contraception;
  • Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast cancer later in life;
  • Breastfeeding is more economical than formula feeding;
  • Hormones released during breast-feeding create feelings of warmth and calm in the mother (source: NIH's MedLine).

In terms of bonding:

  • Skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding, and eye contact all help a baby bond with the mother and feel secure.
  • Oxytocin release is known to promote the bonding with bubba. A newly born person can cause dramatic changes in the life of mommie (and daddy!), and a steady release of oxytocin promotes the bonding and love of mommie for the bubba (source: WebMD).

- Ballard & Morrow, Pediatr Clin North Am (2013); 60(1): 49–74
- Mantis et al., Mucosal Immunology (2011) 4: 03–611
- Quintanilla, Nurs Times, (1996); 92(31): 35-7

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    $\begingroup$ I think this answer is very good; I'm not likely to top it for scope. The only thing I would add is more about antibodies and other contributors to immune function. (If you're interested, I left a comment under the question.) Here's another open source NIH paper that goes into more detail. +1 $\endgroup$ Mar 12, 2016 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ It should also be noted that (various levels and kinds) of milk allergy are rather common in infants, so for an interesting portion of the population, cow milk simply isn't a substitute even when combined with a formula. Often the mother has to avoid milk products as well, since enough of the protein makes it to the breast milk. And many formulas contain cow milk as well, so you're stuck with the very expensive ones tailored for infants with allergy. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Mar 13, 2016 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ @RHA while it's an interesting subject, I think that's outside the scope of a question that's about whether milk from other mammals wouldn't be as good as breastmilk. $\endgroup$
    – YviDe
    Mar 13, 2016 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @RHA (sorry, deleted the first comment to rephrase) except for the "Breastfeeding is more economical than formula feeding", I find this answer to be mostly focused on human vs animal milk. True, some points are independent of what sort of milk it is and relate to breastfeeding specifically (and wouldn't apply to pumping, for example), but other than that, I seem to be reading the answer different than you are. $\endgroup$
    – YviDe
    Mar 13, 2016 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @RHA A working brain is also very energy-consuming. Should that be included in its disadvantages? // Child bearing by healthy women does not customarily require immediate "recovery" and it's completely not a given that stopping breast-feeding will have any positive clinical effect on the mother's "recovery". Not using up what your body wants to give away might in fact be determental to the overall health. $\endgroup$
    – A.S.
    Mar 14, 2016 at 9:16

The contents of milk differ between species. For your example, cow's milk:

Infants fed WCM [Whole Cow's Milk] have low intakes of iron, linoleic acid, and vitamin E, and excessive intakes of sodium, potassium, and protein

Calves have different nutrition needs from human babies. Infants who receive cow's milk instead of breastmilk often suffer from iron deficiency (anemia).

As for antibodies, human babies will benefit the most from antibodies that help against diseases infecting humans, which are not the same as those infecting cows.

  • $\begingroup$ Calves have different nutrition needs from human babies. You hit the exact point, IMO. It applies for every species. $\endgroup$
    Mar 15, 2016 at 6:25

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