According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), today only 40% of newborns are breastfed during the first six months of life; so, the majority of newborns are fed with artificial human milk alternatives, contradicting some important guidelines suggested, by the WHO, to ensure the optimal development of newborns and maximum protection against many illnesses.
Breast milk is truly the perfect food. The long list of features and benefits of this incredible product of the human body increases steadily – a recent study found that human milk contributes to preventing the onset of heart disease in preterm babies. Understanding how this first food works is the first step towards a new awareness of the close relationship between the way we eat and our health.
The WHO guidelines recognize breastfeeding as essential for the first two years of the infant’s life. During this period, other foods can be introduced, but the recommendation, at least for the first six months, is to use exclusively breast milk: the reason is that the so-called baby formulas, which are commercial alternatives for breast milk, do not possess the nutritional and immunological characteristics that are unique to human milk because they do not contain antibodies and human milk oligosaccharides.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) are complex chains of sugar molecules unique to human milk, whose role has been fully understood only in recent years: they are not digested by infants but used to feed the good bacteria that will seed the baby gut, thus strengthening his or her immune systems. This relationship between milk and the establishment and maintenance of the baby’s microbiome is a most wonderful example of the complexity of evolutionary mechanisms.
Breast milk also contains all the nutrients that babies need in the first six months of life and possesses many substances, like HMOs and vitamins, that protect them from diseases. In addition to being more resilient, babies fed with breast milk develop better cognitive skills and are less prone to develop obesity during childhood.
These are the components present in human milk and their role in infants’ growth:
Protein: Protein is the nutrient that contributes the most to the infant’s growth.
Lipids: Fat is crucial for the development of the infant’s neurological system.
Carbs: Carbohydrates are all the lactose and HMOs in the milk.
Immunoglobulins: Immunoglobulins are antibodies that fight off the germs that cause disease. Breast milk contains antibodies that fight off bacteria, viruses, fungus, and parasites.
Hormones: Hormones have many jobs in the human body. They control growth and development, metabolism, stress, pain, and blood pressure.
Vitamins: Vitamins contribute to healthy bones, eyes, and skin. Breast milk contains the vitamins that are necessary for the baby’s health as he/she grows.
Enzymes: There are important enzymes in human breast milk. Some enzymes help with digestion by breaking down fats or proteins, and others protect your baby from germs and illness.
Minerals: Breast milk is full of minerals. Some of the minerals in breast milk are iron, zinc, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and selenium.
Lactose: Lactose is the main sugar in milk, and provides most of the energy needed by the growing infant. It is a part of the total carbohydrates and is the nutritionally relevant sugar.
HMOs: These oligosaccharides are unique to human milk. They are not digestible by the infant, but rather serve to feed the gut microbiome, which has many nutritional and health benefits.
Energy: Calorie intake is key for the development of the baby and is calculated from the content of various components.
Water: An excess of water means a possible dilution of the milk that can reduce its nutritive value.
Sometimes human milk is not enough
Sometimes, even human milk needs to be fortified in order to fulfill the metabolic and growth demands of specific categories of infants: low birth weight (LBW) and preterm ones.
According to recent statistics, 20 million LBW children are born every year (15% of the total) and 15 million of them are born prematurely. In order to avoid undernourishment and to grow optimally, some of these babies have unique nutritional needs. The mother’s milk does not provide sufficient nutrition for some of these infants, leading to slow growth with the risk of neurocognitive impairment and other poor health outcomes. Also, current baby formulas, as mentioned, do not contain HMOs to boost their immune system. So, pediatricians and neonatologists turn to the fortification of the mother’s milk.
The objective of fortification is to increase the concentration of nutrients to the levels recommended for the individual preterm infant. The Preemie sensor is able to accurately analyze human milk composition and can suggest the best fortification according to the actual developmental needs of the child. This contributes to LBW and preterm infants’ health and development and provides them with the very same opportunities as all other babies.
- Food in an evolutionary context: insights from mother’s milk
Growth and nutrient intake among very-low-birth-weight infants fed fortified human milk during hospitalisation
- Global Nutrition Targets 2025: Low birth weight policy brief
- National, regional, and worldwide estimates of preterm birth rates in the year 2010 with time trends since 1990 for selected countries: a systematic analysis and implications
- Preventing disease in the 21st century: early breast milk exposure and later cardiovascular health in premature infants