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Breastfeeding: How HMOs in breast milk promote a #GoodGut

What are HMOs?

HMOs, or human milk oligosaccharides are a diverse group of carbohydrate chains (called glycans) that are an essential food for the good bacteria in our guts to thrive and flourish. These glycans are made of the same building blocks as carbohydrates except for one particular factor: we are not able to digest them with the enzymes in our gut microbiome. The bacteria in our gut must digest them for us! HMOs are the initial drivers to populate a baby’s gut microbiome in the first days after birth, which means they are crucial in setting up the baby's gut for the rest of their lives.

What are the benefits of HMOs?

HMO’s not only serve as “food” for our “good”/ commensal microbes, but also help prevent the “bad”/inflammatory microbes from taking hold in baby’s gut. HMOs act as decoys and essentially lure in the inflammatory microbes so that they are unable to set up camp in the gut. HMOs also promote immune system tolerance and can provide multiple layers of protection for the newborn gut, ensuring that the better microbes out-compete the inflammatory microbes.

The first 100 days of life

Studies have shown that the first 1,000 days of life are the most influential to a baby’s immune system, brain development, gut microbiome, and overall health. With breastfeeding, baby receives colostrum during the first few days of life. Colostrum, also known as the “golden milk”, is high in special proteins which coat a newborn’s intestinal tract to protect from harmful bacteria from day one. Even after mom stops producing colostrum, baby is still receiving HMOs and other key nutrients from breast milk.

Formula vs. breastfeeding

Breastfeeding can be difficult, painful, exhausting, and time-consuming for new mothers, which leads many to consider formula feeding instead. While formula may be the only option for some to provide calories to their growing baby, the full complexity of the nutrients in breast milk cannot be met by formula. Breast milk naturally provides prebiotics and probiotics that support baby’s gut flora. A new trend in formula is to add prebiotics, but it cannot replicate the intricacy of 200 strains of microbiota that can be found in mother’s breast milk. We’re grateful formula is an option for those who truly need it as we continue to advocate for breastfeeding for as long as a mother can to support best gut health.

The perfect blend

Human breast milk provide the perfect nutrients for the baby as soon as they are born and its macro and micronutrient composition changes as baby grows and changes as well. Breast milk is full of immunoglobulins, hormones, and the aforementioned oligosaccharide carbohydrates. Immunoglobulins support the immune function, and help to prevent the development of allergies, hormones are essential for proper growth and development, and as mentioned before, oligosaccharides help to create a healthy gut. It is clear that creating a healthy gut for babies can have lifelong results!

Call-to-Action: What should I do to make sure baby has a #goodgut right from the start?

  1. Do your best to breastfeed your baby for at least the first 6 months of life, with the gold standard recommended for two years if it is working for you and your baby. This is the best way to give them the robust immune system and microbiome that they can possibly have!

  2. Mom should be on a prebiotic fiber-rich diet

  3. Mom should also continue to take a prenatal multivitamin with omega 3 and sufficient Vitamin D to pass the benefits on to the baby while still breastfeeding.

  4. Supplementing your baby with prebiotics (once they stop breastfeeding) can be beneficial to the gut microbiome, as clinical studies show the benefits can be long-term.

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American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827–e841. DOI:

Walsh et al (2020). Human milk oligosaccharides: Shaping the infant gut microbiota and supporting health. Journal of Functional Foods, Volume 72.

Wiciński, M., Sawicka, E., Gębalski, J., Kubiak, K., & Malinowski, B. (2020). Human Milk Oligosaccharides: Health Benefits, Potential Applications in Infant Formulas, and Pharmacology. Nutrients, 12(1), 266.

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