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Human milk oligosaccharides: Role and impact on a newborn’s health

By Dr. Anubhava Patel
Dr. Anubhava Patel,
Neonatologist & Pediatrician
NICU Incharge
Apollomedics Super Specialty Hospitals, Lucknow

Every mother knows that there’s nothing better than breastmilk for a newborn. Breastmilk has the perfect balance of essential nutrients and aids in boosting immunity and gut health. It was only recently that researchers were able to identify a critical component known as Oligosaccharides which are highly abundant in and unique to only human milk. They named these as Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs).

What Are Human Milk Oligosaccharides?

Human milk has an oligosaccharide concentration that is 100-1000 times the concentration seen in milk from other domesticated farm animals. These oligosaccharides are complex sugars that perform a variety of functions including acting as special prebiotics.

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the third most abundant component of breast milk, after lactose and lipids. The initial breast milk produced by mothers called colostrum has the highest levels of oligosaccharides. HMOs have no direct nutritional value but benefit newborn health in many other ways.

Benefits Of HMOs

Let’s find out how a baby can benefit from HMOs in breastmilk:
Encourage The Growth Of Healthy Gut Bacteria

The foundation for our immunity lies in the gut. A baby starts developing an immune system only after birth. For this, they need healthy gut bacteria. This is where prebiotics and probiotics come in. Probiotics refer to healthy bacteria that build a strong immune system. The food for these bacteria is known as prebiotics.

The most abundantly found HMO in mother’s milk is known as 2′-FL. These are indigestible breast milk components and hence reach the gut intact. Many types of healthy bacteria found in an infant’s guts particularly those from the Bifidobacterium genus can consume HMOs. Thus, HMOs encourage the growth of these gut bacteria and help build a baby’s immune system.

Helps Flush Out Harmful Bacteria Out From The Body

Recent studies have suggested that the presence of HMOs in breastmilk may be the reason why breastfed infants suffer from fewer infections as compared to formula-fed infants.

Apart from feeding healthy gut bacteria, Human Milk Oligosaccharides improve the ability of probiotic bacteria to attach themselves to the intestinal lining while keeping harmful bacteria from attaching to the baby’s gut.

As a result, healthy bacteria spend more time in the gut. Since the parasitic elements cannot latch themselves onto the gut they continue moving through the digestive system and are eventually passed out through stools This action by HMOs like 2′-FL is believed to be responsible for fewer instances of diarrhea and dysentery in breastfed babies.

Acts As Antiviral

Along with protecting a baby from bacterial infections, HMOs also protect babies from norovirus and rotavirus infections. They mimic receptor sites and block these viruses from entering healthy cells.

In addition, they keep the virus from multiplying and thus act as natural antivirals. This action by HMOs is believed to reduce the effect of viruses responsible for influenza and other respiratory issues. Many researchers are speculating that HMOs may also act as antiviral against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The Bottom Line

the presence of natural Human Milk Oligosaccharides is a critical difference between breastmilk and formula. It helps build a strong foundation for your baby’s immune system and protects him or her from viral, bacterial and fungal infections. It’s one more reason to cement the importance of breastfeeding a baby for at least the first 6 months after birth.

Unfortunately, some mothers may have difficulty producing enough breast milk for their babies. In such cases, it is recommended to use pasteurised donor milk rather than feeding infant formula. Donor milk refers to breastmilk donated by other healthy lactating mothers.

Donor mothers must meet stringent health standards and the milk donated is screened, pasteurised, tested and then made available in a milk bank. So, it is safe for your baby. Moreover, pasteurisation ensures the HMOs in breastmilk are retained which thereby helps improve the overall health and wellbeing for the recipient babies.

(The author is Neonatologist & Pediatrician, NICU Incharge, Apollomedics Super Specialty Hospitals, Lucknow)

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