Human Milk as a source of ProbioticsDr. Ankur Rajvanshi
Reading Time: 3 minutes
MD (Paed), Fellowship in Neonatology FIPPN (Australia)
Neonatologist & Paediatrician
Like all mothers, Smriti wanted to keep her baby safe from all kinds of bacteria and infections. Well, it seems she forgot one important fact – not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, strains of good bacteria or probiotics play a key role in helping infants develop a healthy immune system and contribute to their overall well-being.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” So, what’s the best source of good bacteria for babies? The answer is human milk
Human Milk and Probiotics
There are over 700 different types of bacteria in human milk including common probiotics like Streptococcus, Lactobacillus, Staphylococcus, Bifidobacterium, and Enterococcus. According to experts, strains of good bacteria may also be found on the surface of the mother’s skin- another reason why it’s better to breastfeed a baby rather than going for bottle-feeding.
Probiotics found in human milk can influence a baby’s health and well-being in many ways. Let’s find out the benefits of human milk:
A baby’s digestive system is still developing. Thus, constipation is a common problem amongst new-borns. This can make them cranky and irritable. The probiotics in human milk help ease this situation. Probiotics in human milk increase the number of good bacteria and help the baby have smooth bowel movements. They can also help treat diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome.
Strengthened Immune System
While the baby is in the womb, the mother’s immune system protects the baby. Once out in the world, babies gradually develop their own immune systems. 70% of the immune system lies in the gut. The strength of an immune system depends on the level of healthy bacteria in the gut. The probiotics in human milk fight against unhealthy bacteria and boost good bacteria levels. This is one of the key reasons why building a stronger immune system is considered one of the main benefits of human milk.
Lowered Risk of Fungal Infections
Babies that are breastfed have a high risk of developing fungal infections like thrush. These infections typically develop around the baby’s mouth. Not many mothers realize how common these fungal infections can be. Probiotics in mother’s milk help prevent these infections. They help maintain a balance between good and bad bacteria and thus prevent fungal infections from taking root.
Better Mental Health
The benefits of human milk extend beyond nutrition and physical well-being alone. Though the exact cause of mental health issues like schizophrenia, ADHD, depression and anxiety and not fully understood, they have been potentially connected to digestive health. Mental health and digestive health are believed to be connected through a gut-brain axis. By giving your baby probiotics in the form of human milk helps improves digestive health. This, in turn, improves mental health and can reduce the baby’s risk of developing mental health issues later in their adult life.
Lower Risk of Eczema
Eczema is an uncomfortable condition that affects the skin. It is characterized by itchiness, scaly skin and inflammation. Atopic eczema is quite common amongst infants. Probiotics in human milk have anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, a mother who breastfeeds her baby introduces probiotics into the baby’s system that help reduce inflammation and prevent eczema.
Quicker Recovery from Infections
Apart from strengthening the immune system to fight against infections, probiotics in human milk can also help babies recover from illnesses. Antibiotics that are prescribed to treat infections do not differentiate between good and bad bacteria. Thus, the balance between them may be thrown off causing gastrointestinal distress. Therefore, many infants develop diarrhoea as a side effect of antibiotics. The probiotics in human milk increase the good bacteria count in a baby’s gut and aid in faster recovery from an infection.
How Maximize the Benefits of Your Breast Milk
To maximize the benefits of breast milk, mothers should breastfeed their new-born babies for at least the first 6 months of life. The composition of human milk changes as a baby grows and hence this is the best way to meet his/ her nutritional needs. As explained above, breastfeeding a baby also provides probiotics to a baby and strengthens them both physically and mentally. Eating probiotic foods like yogurt, kefir, pickles, kimchi, etc. could boost probiotic levels in your breast milk and better support the child’s growth and development.
Unfortunately, some mothers find it difficult to produce sufficient breastmilk. In such situations, public health organisations recommend Pasteurised human milk. Pasteurised human breast milk retains similar probiotic activity as mother’s milk, which cannot be compared with infant formula which does not provide any probiotic activity.