Breastmilk sugar wards off infections

A type of sugar found naturally in some women’s breast milk may protect newborn babies from infection with a potentially life threatening bacterium, says a study published in the journal Clinical and Translational Immunology.

The study found that breast milk containing lacto-n-difucohexaose I — a specific sugar produced in nearly half of all women in the world — was better at killing the Group B streptococcus bacteria — a common cause of meningitis as well as the leading cause of various infections in newborns.

The infants whose mothers produced lacto-n-difucohexaose I in their breast milk, were more likely to have cleared the bacteria from their body by 60-89 days after birth. The type of sugars a woman produces in her breast milk are partly dictated by her genetic make-up.

The Group B streptococcus bacteria is naturally found in the vagina and bowels of one in three pregnant woman and can be transferred to the baby during childbirth or in breast milk, triggering an infection.

Human milk oligosaccharides — mixture of many different types of sugar — found in woman’s breast milk does not get digested, but act as food for the ‘friendly bacteria’ in a baby’s intestine.

The presence of sugars found in human breast milk allows the “friendly” bacteria to flourish and out-compete any harmful bacteria that may be in the child’s gut, the study said.

The study also suggests that these breast milk sugars (human milk oligosaccharides) may protect against  other infections in the newborn, such as rotavirus. The team who did the study, lead by Nicholas Andreas, a post-doctoral student at Imperial College London, studied the breast milk of 183 women from Gambia.