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Breast milk – the magic potion that helps build your child’s gut

By Dr. Vikas Satwik

As much as we aim to keep our surroundings germ free, did you know that our gut is the biggest storehouse of ‘good germs’? These billions of gut bugs help us in various ways. What do these bugs that stay rent free in our gut do? A lot of things, right from helping us to digest the otherwise tough fibre and secreting some vitamins and factors for good health to preventing the bad, infection-causing bacteria from invading our body. These good gut bugs help train and support the immune system.For an infant, establishment of these gut bugs are particularly important for its health.

Breast milk, the very first food for an infant, is a major factor that determines the health and immunity of an infant. It contains many nutrients and factors that promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Apart from nutrients and immune-strengthening antibodies, breast milk also has a prebiotic known to boost immunity. Healthy breastfed infants in studies show the presence of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, bacteria that is known to help with your baby’s immunity.

Prebiotics in breast milk

Good bacteria in your baby’s gut need a ‘substrate’ or food for growth. This food for the gut bacteria comes in the form of indigestible fibre and other ingredients that bypass digestion and reach the colon. Once in the colon, this undigested food is fermented to release many products known to be beneficial for health. While breast milk has many good nutrients, a particular carbohydrate present in breast milk is especially known to increase the counts of helpful Bifidobacteria.

This complex carbohydrate is called human milk oligosaccharide or HMO and they act like food for these bacteria to ferment and grow. Interestingly, studies have found good numbers of helpful bacteria in the gut of breastfed infants and lower levels of potentially infection causing bad bacteria.

What are HMOs?

In simple words, human milk oligosaccharides are type of carbohydrates uniquely present in breast milk. HMOs are 3rd most abundant component, after lactose and fats present in breast milk. HMO content in colostrum, the yellowish, thick milk produced within the first few days of delivery, is very rich with approximately 2g per 100ml. The level of HMOs then drops down to 1.2g to 1.5g per 100ml in mature milk.

An interesting part about this unique component is that it escapes digestion and once in the gut, only a certain kind of bacteria can digest it. This selective digestion pattern helps to increase the number of beneficial bacteria in your child’s gut.

While there are more than 1000 different HMOs present in breast milk, the most common one in human milk is called the 2’-Fucosyllactose or 2-FLDid you know, the total amount and composition of HMO secreted in the breast milk differs in women? Genetic history, breastfeeding duration, time of delivery, the overall health and diet of the mother and her geographical location seem to influence the levels of human milk oligosaccharides in mother’s milk. This makes breast milk very unique and made especially for the baby.

Away with the bad bacteria

Not only do they boost the levels of good bacteria, but HMOs also prevent bad bacteria from causing infection in your baby. Since they are not digested, they form a physical barrier preventing the bad bacterial from ‘attaching’ and causing infection. In addition to this, not every bacteria can use HMOs for energy, only the good bacteria survive while the infection-causing ones perish. Studies have also found that some infection-causing bad bacteria just stops growing in the presence of HMOs. All in all, HMOs are helpful in preventing recurring infections in your baby.

Take home message

While all this scientific mumbo jumbo might be confusing, mothers must remember that breastfeeding is the best for your baby. It has all the nutrients and immune factors in the correct proportion. Breast milk is naturally rich in good gut bacteria promoting HMOs that are the most beneficial for a healthy baby. You can ask your paediatrician to help you make the right choice that will help boost your child’s immunity and let them have a good gut health.

(The author is a Consultant – Paediatrician and Neonatologist, Motherhood Hospital. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the

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