Human milk is the natural, adapted and sole recommended nutrition for infants. It provides not only nutrition for the growth of an infant, but also numerous bioactive components supporting age‐appropriate development and immune protection. Consequently, pediatric societies and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend exclusive breastfeeding till 6 months of age and breast‐feeding to be continued for at least 2 years of age.
The first months of life are a special time for the health development and protection of infants. Breastfeeding is the natural and best way of feeding an infant, and positively influences their development and health. It is mostly composed of water and various solid components with nutritive values and bioactive functions. Breast milk provides the ideal balance of nutrients for the infant and contains countless bioactive ingredients such as immunoglobulin, hormones, oligosaccharides, and others.
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are a very important and interesting constituent of human milk and are the third most abundant solid component after lactose and lipids.
Human Milk Oligosaccharides or HMOs are special prebiotics found in breast milk that circulate throughout the body, benefit the developing immune system, and support digestion. About 70 Percent of the immune system is in the gut. That’s why feeding the good bacteria in the gut is so important, especially for babies and children.
It is these HMOs that feed the good bacteria and defend against the bad bacteria in the gut. There are nearly 150 HMOs – but the most abundant in most mother’s milk is called 2’-FL.
Importance of HMOs in Human Milk
There are numerous health benefits of HMOs. It can certainly be said that HMOs are a very important component of breast milk. They decrease the risk of infection by their interactions with viruses, bacteria, or protozoa. Below are a few of these interactions:
- Human milk oligosaccharides are special prebiotics that can help nourish your baby’s immune system.
- HMO’s help in shaping a healthy infant gut micro biome through increasing the abundance of good gut bacteria
- Reducing the risk of bacterial imbalance through promoting a healthy gut micro biome
- Maturing and maintaining the integrity of the intestine
- HMOs directly interact with the immune system and provide protection against allergies to newborn babies.
- children on exclusive human milk diet are less likely to have many life-threatening diseases like diarrhea, respiratory and urinary tract infections, otitis media, bacteremia and necrotizing enterocolitis.
Apart from improving immunity and providing protection against infections and allergies HMOs in Human milk also support infant’s cognitive development. Studies show that various HMO’s (specially 2’-FL and 6’SL) have a positive impact on memory and learning abilities in early developmental stages with beneficial repercussions in late developmental stages as well.
Interestingly, like all other components of breastmilk, HMOs are also very dynamic in composition. They vary vastly in composition based not only on maternal genetic factors but also environmental factors such as seasons and geographical locations. The advancement of bioengineering has allowed the production of synthetic analogue of a few oligosaccharides present in human milk to supplement regular infant formulas, however, the complexity and dynamicity of the composition of HMOs in breastmilk is a miracle of human milk that cannot be replicated. For the same reason WHO recommends that in case of absence of mother’s own milk, donor human milk is the next best choice as it has bioactive factors similar to mothers own milk.