Protective effects of breast milk are higher in girls than in boys, found Johns Hopkins Children’s Center investigators.
Challenging the long-standing belief that breast-feeding equally protects all babies against disease, research suggests that when it comes to respiratory infections, the protective effects of breast milk are higher in girls than in boys.
Following 119 premature babies in Buenos Aires through their first year of life, researchers found that breast-feeding not only offered more protection to girls than boys, but also that formula-fed girls had the highest risk for severe respiratory infections.
The findings, reported in the June issue of Pediatrics, cast doubt on the theory that immune system chemicals contained in breast milk and passed directly from mother to newborn are responsible for preventing the infections. If this were the case, researchers say, both boys and girls would likely derive equal protection.
In addition, breast-feeding did not appear to affect the number of infections, but rather their severity and the need for hospitalization, meaning that breast milk does not prevent a baby from getting an infection, but helps a baby cope with an infection better.
“In light of these results, we are starting to think that milk does not directly transfer protection against lung infections but instead switches on a universal protective mechanism, already in the baby, that is for some reason easier to turn on in girls than in boys,” says senior investigator Fernando Polack, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Hopkins Children’s.
Shortly after birth, formula-fed girls were eight times more likely than breast-fed girls to develop serious respiratory infections requiring hospitalization, the study results showed. Formula-fed girls were also more likely to develop such infections than both breast-fed and non-breast-fed boys.
“When resources are limited, it helps to know that your high-risk group is formula-fed girls,” Polack says. The findings also suggest that the mothers of premature girls should be strongly encouraged to breast-feed, investigators say.