New research in the December issue of Nature looks at the components of human milk that go beyond just simply nutrition — the stuff that protects against infection and addresses specific needs of babies depending on their age and even sex.
The work was funded by Nestle — the company that makes infant formula among other things — and focuses on the “uniqueness of breastmilk.” The goal is to further hone the recipe for formula, bringing it closer to human milk. But the research suggests that imitation of this biological food, while always improving, may have its limits as mother’s milk is custom-designed for her baby in all kinds of ways.
Here are the highlights:
Human milk might be different for boys and girls
Some new research suggests that mother’s milk has has more protein and fat when it’s made for boys than when it’s made for girls. There are still lots of questions, though. If it is true, it may be related to how boys grow faster than girls. Intriguing for sure, though Barbara Holmes, a lactation specialist at New York University Langone Medical Center, told WedMD, “What it means is unknown. We don’t have clear evidence of why this might be or even if it is true.” We do know that human milk composition is different for premature babies than it is for older babies and toddlers.
Human milk helps digestion
We’ve known this for a while, but new studies suggest that breastmilk may actually affect gene expression in the stomach cells of infants. Studies looked at how the colonization of bacteria in a breastfed baby’s gut protects against diarrhea or food allergies. Breastmilk contains over 200 human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which help with digestion and protect against infection. “Some moms can have up to 200 different HMOs, and these are devoid in infant formulas, so the only way to get them is to add them,” says Sharon M. Donovan, Ph.D, RD, a professor of nutrition and pediatrics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and a consultant for formula companies. Adding HMOs into formula may not have the same benefit as those found in the mother’s milk, however.
“Infant formulas are continually being improved, and are the best they can be,” Donovan says. “We are trying to identify the uniqueness in breast milk and use the information to improve infant formulas because not everyone breastfeeds or is able to breastfeed.”