Breastfeeding is the biologically superior way to feed an infant. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life and then continued breastfeeding while introducing age-appropriate foods until an infant is 12 months old or older. This provides the infant optimal nutrition and immunity while supporting growth and development. New research shows that components of breast milk called human milk oligosaccharides may influence infant growth and prevent obesity in early childhood.
Human milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs, are complex, indigestible sugars present in breast milk. More than 200 HMOs have been identified, and they are the third most abundant factor in breast milk after fat and lactose. The quantity and composition of the HMOs in breast milk are genetically determined and differ slightly between women. The primary role of HMOs is to serve as prebiotics – compounds that induce the growth or activity of beneficial bacteria – in the infant gut. In turn, these beneficial bacteria produce short-chain fatty acids and other substances that prevent the colonization of pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
The study analyzed more than 800 breast milk samples from women enrolled in a prospective population-based birth cohort study in Finland. The authors of the study then analyzed growth data for children from age 3 months to 5 years old and linked it to their mothers' HMO composition to test for associations.
The analyses revealed that high concentrations of an HMO called 2'-Fucosyllactose (2'FL) and low concentrations of an HMO called Lacto-N-neotetraose (LNnT) influenced growth in infancy and early childhood. In particular, HMO diversity and the concentration of LNnT were inversely associated. In addition, concentrations of 2′FL were directly associated with child height and weight between the ages of 3 and 12 months. Watch this clip in which Drs. Erica and Justin Sonnenberg describe some of the beneficial properties of HMOs.
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