Mallory Smothers said that she usually nurses her infant every two hours or so overnight. One Friday morning in February at 3 a.m., she noticed that her baby was congested and sneezing. The Arkansas mother pumped later that morning, as usual. When comparing the pumped milk from Friday morning with the frozen milk she produced on Thursday night, Smothers noticed a significant difference.
"Look at how much more the milk I produced Friday resembles colostrum (The super milk full of antibodies and leukocytes you make during the first few days after birth)," she wrote on Facebook.
After taking a photo of her "cuckoo awesome" breast milk from Friday, she posted it to Facebook, along with a theory about why the milk was so differently colored.
"I read an article from a medical journal not too long ago about how Mom's milk changes to tailor baby's needs in more ways than just caloric intake," she wrote on Facebook. "So this doctor discusses that when a baby nurses, it creates a vacuum in which the infant's saliva sneaks into the mother's nipple. There, it is believed that mammary gland receptors interpret the 'baby spit backwash' for bacteria and viruses and, if they detect something amiss (i.e., the baby is sick or fighting off an infection), Mom's body will actually change the milk's immunological composition, tailoring it to the baby's particular pathogens by producing customized antibodies."
It turns out that Smothers' theory about the possible medicinal benefits of breastfeeding is supported by research. A 2013 Clinical and Translational Immunology study investigated breast milk and leukocytes (cells that protect the body from infections). In the early postpartum period, 13 to 70 percent of cells in colostrum are leukocytes. The number of leukocytes significantly decreases after this period, but the leukocyte numbers increase to 94 percent when the infant is suffering from an infection.
The study suggested that the pathogens in the infant's saliva might be transported into the breast through the nipple. This might be how the mother's body detects an infection in her baby. While this is still a hypothesis, biologist Katie Hinde told Science News that this "remains very likely given all that we know about physiology."
"Wow! I am glad so many are wanting to spread the word on the amazing benefits of breastfeeding!," Smothers commented on her Facebook photo that went viral.