When it comes to infant nutrition, breastmilk is at the top of the list. It’s the gold standard, and it only makes sense that exclusive breastfeeding is the recommended way of feeding infants. Now, a study says breastfeeding reduces gastrointestinal and respiratory infections because of the probiotics and prebiotics breastmilk contains.
Dr. Eduardo López-Huertas (PharmD, PhD) of the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, or CSIC) explains that a mother passes bacteria from her gut to the child through breastfeeding. Thus, they become immune to gastrointestinal infections.
What are probiotics and prebiotics?
In a study he co-authored, Dr. López-Huertas and his colleagues proved that a combination of the probiotic lactobacillus fermentum and prebiotic galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) given to babies over a six-month period greatly reduced the rate of gastrointestinal and respiratory infection in babies between six and 12 months of age.
But what are probiotics and prebiotics? Here’s the difference:
- Probiotics: These are live bacteria found in certain food or supplements. They can provide numerous health benefits.
- Prebiotics: These substances come from types of carbs (mostly fiber) that humans can’t digest. The beneficial bacteria in your gut eat this fiber.
The best probiotics and prebiotics
The best kind of milk
López-Huertas emphasizes this importance as breastmilk contains bacteria that helps innoculate babies against infection. In their research, they found that milk is not technically a sterile liquid as they once thought. Breastmilk is actually a liquid filled with bacteria, albeit the good kind.
Integrating l. fermentum into infant nutrition for babies between six and 12 months of age reduced gastrointestinal infections (by 46%) and upper respiratory infections (by 27%) such as the common cold, pharyngitis, and tonsillitis compared with children who did not receive these probiotics.
Reducing infections via probiotics and prebiotics
The study also demonstrated that babies in their first year tolerate l. fermentum well, and has judged it safe. In addition, consuming l.fermentum and GOS in tandem has improved the health of infants aged one to six months by reducing the incidence of gastrointestinal infections by 71%.
López-Huertas’ study also showed that supplementary infant nutrition is a viable alternative if a mother is incapable of breastfeeding her child due to her current physical condition.
Research into breastmilk has sought to imitate it as closely as possible. But formula milk does not come close. López-Huertas said scientists still don’t understand breast milk completely.
According to López-Huertas, breastmilk contains lactic acid bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, including l.fermentum, and prebiotics containing galactose.
Physical and psychosocial aspects of infant nutrition
Breastfeeding is important to infant health both physically and psychologically according to López-Huertas. He explained that breastfeeding within the first moments after birth is an important predictor of breastfeeding initiation.
Skin-to-skin contact is also another predictor. The World Health Organization guidelines indicate it is necessary to keep mother and baby together for at least one hour postbirth. This improves breastfeeding initiation and duration.
Now, if a mother delivered her child by Cesarian section, they are more likely to delay breastfeeding. Experts associate the delay in breastfeeding initiation with the following:
- Reduced suckling capability
- Reduced infant receptivity
- Insufficient bodymass
Infant nutrition and Cesarian section
López-Huertas says that according to their research, there is a biological mechanism in the mom’s gut that selects good bacteria from it and sends it through a pathway that leads to the milk-producing areas of the breasts.
During birth, bacteria (including probiotics) are transferred from mother to baby as the baby passes through the vaginal canal. Remnants of the birth (e.g. placenta) can be ingested by the baby, facilitating the transfer. The mother reinforces the transfer of good bacteria by breastfeeding very soon after birth.
However, this does not happen with women who deliver babies via Cesarean section (CS). Women who undergo Caesarian section are less likely to breastfeed and delay the breastfeeding initiation.
CS babies need probiotics and prebiotics
Studies have shown that CS-born babies possess less beneficial bacteria and more potentially pathogenic bacteria in the digestive tract.
This increases the risk of infections and diseases later in life, like asthma or atopic dermatitis. CS-born babies who cannot be breastfed must then turn to alternatives like infant nutrition containing a combination of l.fermentum and GOS.
“For babies who cannot be breastfed, the combination of the breastmilk probiotic l.fermentum and the prebiotic GOS in infant nutrition presents advantages regarding community-acquired infections mainly gastrointestinal infections. In addition, for babies born by CS who cannot be breastfed a formula with pre- and probiotics should be considered due to its possible benefits,” Lopez-Huertas said.
Examples of probiotics and prebiotics
There are the examples of prebiotic foods:
- Legumes, beans and peas
- Jerusalem artichokes (not the same as regular artichokes)
- Dandelion greens
Meanwhile, these are the examples of probiotic foods:
Moms’ own nutrition via probiotics and prebiotics
Moms should be careful with what they take into their body during pregnancy. López-Huertas adds that moms should just try and eat healthy. But he warns against taking antibiotics during pregnancy as it lowers the amount of probiotics present in their breastmilk.
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