The benefits of breast milk have long been appreciated, but now scientists have found yet another reason why mother’s should try to use their own milk rather than formula. A team at Duke University Medical Center found newborns fed breast milk develop a healthier gut compared to those on infant formula. This is because lab tests revealed a mother’s milk fosters unique colonies of microbiotic flora that aid nutrient absorption and boost immune system development.
Study leader Dr William Parker, said: ‘This study is the first we know of that examines the effects of infant nutrition on the way that bacteria grow, providing insight to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of breast-feeding over formula feeding for newborns. ‘Only breast milk appears to promote a healthy colonization of beneficial biofilms, and these insights suggest there may be potential approaches for developing substitutes that more closely mimic those benefits in cases where breast milk cannot be provided.’
Earlier studies have shown that breast milk lowers the incidence of diarrhoea, influenza and respiratory infections during infancy. It also protects against the later development of allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses. As scientists have learned more about the role intestinal flora plays in health, they have gained appreciation for how an infant’s early diet can affect this beneficial microbial universe. In their study, the Duke researchers grew bacteria in samples of infant formulas, cow’s milk and breast milk. The samples were incubated with two strains of E. coli bacteria – necessary early inhabitants of the gut that are helpful cousins to the dangerous organisms associated with food poisoning.
Within minutes, the bacteria began multiplying in all of the specimens, but there was an immediate difference in the way the bacteria grew. In the breast milk, bacteria stuck together to form biofilms – thin, adherent layers of bacteria that serve as a shield against pathogens and infections.Bacteria in the infant formula and cow’s milk proliferated but it did not aggregate to form a protective barrier.
Dr Parker said: ‘Knowing how breast milk conveys its benefits could help in the development of infant formulas that better mimic nature.’This could have a long-lasting effect on the health of infants who, for many reasons, may not get mother’s milk.’
The Department of Health recommend mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least six months. Figures released last year revealed 81 per cent of mothers start breastfeeding, however over half have quit by the time their baby is six weeks. Just one in five continue to six months.
Cracked nipples, infections such as mastitis and problems getting a baby to latch on can all hinder breastfeeding.Dr Gabriela Panayotti, from Duke, said: ‘This study adds even more weight to an already large body of evidence that breast milk is the most nutritious way to feed a baby whenever possible.
‘We know that babies who receive breast milk have better outcomes in many ways, and mother who breast feed also have improved health outcomes, including decreased risks of cancer. Whenever possible, promoting breast-feeding is the absolute best option for mom and baby.’The findings have been published in the August issue of the journal Current Nutrition & Food Science.