Breast milk 'rich in chemical that could help fight infant infections'

Scientists have discovered a chemical compound in breast milk which could help prevent infections [Photo: Getty]
Scientists have discovered a chemical compound in breast milk which could help prevent infections [Photo: Getty]

Breast milk is rich in a chemical that combats infant infections, new research has suggested.

The benefits of breast milk have long been discussed, but scientists at the National Jewish Health and the University of Iowa have now identified a compound in human breast milk that fights infections caused by harmful bacteria, while allowing beneficial bacteria to thrive.

Researchers found human breast milk has more than 200 times the amount of glycerol monolaurate (GML) than that found in cows’ milk.

Infant formula, on the other hand has none, but GML is inexpensive to manufacture, so study authors are calling for further research to determine if GML could be a beneficial additive to cow’s milk and infant formula.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, found the compound strongly inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

READ MORE: Breastfeeding: Is it safe to nurse your baby if your nipples are bleeding?

After showing it contains much more than cows' milk, experiments revealed the chemical inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis and Clostridium perfringens.

The bacterium can cause serious infections and food poisoning. Neither cows' nor formula milk had any effect.

Meanwhile, the human breast milk did not block Enterococcus faecilis, part of the flora of gastrointestinal tracts of healthy humans.

Breast fed babies are known to have plenty of good bacteria that improve immunity.

When the researchers removed the GML, the human breast milk lost its antimicrobial activity. But the cows' milk became antimicrobial - after it was added.

READ MORE: Woman's breast cancer discovered after son refuses to feed from breast with tumour

Scientists have uncovered another potential benefit of breastfeeding [Photo: Getty]
Scientists have uncovered another potential benefit of breastfeeding [Photo: Getty]

The researchers also showed GML inhibits inflammation in epithelial cells, which line the gut and other mucosal surfaces. This can lead to bacterial and viral infections.

"While antibiotics can fight bacterial infections in infants, they kill the beneficial bacteria along with the pathogenic ones," said Patrick Schlievert, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

"GML is much more selective, fighting only the pathogenic bacteria while allowing beneficial species to thrive. We think GML holds great promise as a potential additive to cows' milk and infant formula that could promote the health of babies around the world."

The researchers note that GML is inexpensive to manufacture, and Drs. Schlievert and Leung have now applied for a patent for the use of GML as a beneficial additive to cow's milk and infant formula.

The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

But in June last year 2018 the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) guidance published new guidance for mothers, claiming mums should not be shamed into breastfeeding and their choice to bottle feed must be respected.

The new stance by the RCM forms part of an ongoing debate about the best way to encourage mothers to breastfeed.

Last year Public Health England (PHE) launched a new tool, offering women help to breastfeed through Amazon Alexa.

The tool was created following a recent survey of 1,000 mothers that revealed nearly two thirds believe access to 24/7 support would make new mums more likely to have a positive experience of breastfeeding.

Last year, another professional body announced they believed the importance of breastfeeding should be taught to schoolchildren as young as 11.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) called for schools to teach children about the benefits of breastfeeding as part of compulsory personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons which are taught at secondary school.

Breastfeeding rates in Britain remain among the lowest in the world. While 73% of babies start off being breastfed, just 45% receive it after six weeks.

At six months, just 1% are being given only breast milk, as the WHO recommends.

Additional reporting SWNS