It’s a fact that breastmilk is amazingly healthy for babies. The reason why is that breastmilk is more than just a source of nutrition. It contains enzymes, antibodies, stem cells, and other good stuff that is known to protect babies from disease and infections.
Not only that, but breastmilk is tailor-made for babies. It changes to match a baby’s needs based on their age, how recently they’ve nursed, and how often they are nursing. It also changes in reaction to whatever viruses or bacteria a mom has encountered, producing antibodies to combat the specific infection, which then get ingested by the baby. It’s a pretty incredible phenomenon.
But it’s also a fact that not every mom can produce a full supply of milk for her baby. This is especially true for moms of premature babies who are in the NICU. Many preemies aren’t developmentally able to nurse directly from the breast at first. Some moms are able to pump a full supply for their preemies, but many are not – and the stress of having a baby in the NICU can make pumping all the more difficult.
Still, breastmilk is highly recommended for premature babies, who are at much higher risk for contracting serious and life-threatening infections like necrotising enterocolitis. As such, major health organizations like the Academy of American Pediatrics and The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that all premature babies receive breastmilk – and if breastmilk directly from their mothers is not available, pasteurized donor breastmilk is recommended when possible.
Of course, not all preemies are even able to acquire donor breastmilk, but the tide seems to be changing, with more milk banks opening up all over the country, and hospitals making an effort to make sure this milk is available to moms, which is awesome.
Now, when a premature baby receives donated milk, it’s a must that it be handled carefully and fully pasteurized. Moms of older babies may decide to participate in informal milk-sharing arrangements, but only screened breastmilk is recommended for preemies.
But while pasteurization – which kills 99% of bacteria – is vital, it depletes breastmilk of all that “good” bacteria that protects babies from harm.
Enter a team of medical researchers from the University of Florida in Gainesville. A few years ago, they came up with a novel idea: What if we took pasteurized donor milk and added a little of a mom’s own milk to it? Would we be able to restore some of the good-for-you bacteria present in breastmilk? Would we be able to “personalize” donor milk so it matches the baby’s mom’s milk?
Well, the answer seems to be a resounding YES to all these questions, as a study that came out of this research, and published in Frontiers in Microbiology, explains. The study, published in 2017, is making the rounds again – and blowing the whole dang internet away.
Basically, the researchers did an experiment to see what would happen if they inoculated pasteurized donor breast milk (DBM) with Mom’s Own Milk (MOM). So between December 2014 and February 2016, they gathered 12 moms and had them express some of their breastmilk. These were preemie moms, with babies born at less than 32 weeks’ gestation and weighing less than 3.3 pounds at birth.
The moms had to be able to express at least 45 mL during each session, and 100mL per day, which meant that even moms without a robust milk supply could participate. This milk was then added to pasteurized donor milk at different intervals and in different amounts.
The results were pretty amazing, with the researchers finding that inoculating DBM with MOM changed the microbiome of the donor milk significantly. How cool is that?
“[W]e have shown that each mother has a unique milk microbiota and that the live microbiome in DBM can be restored with these unique bacteria using small amounts of MOM,” explain the study researchers. “This is a novel approach to possibly improving the bioactivity of DBM by adding specific MOM microbes in small quantities to personalize her own infant’s milk.”
The researchers point out that personalizing DBM helps vulnerable preemies have a “more robust infant intestinal microbiome.” And they also point out that preemie breastmilk has special age-specific attributes and protections, so adding breastmilk from the mom of a preemie herself imparts certain specific benefits that may not have been present in the donor milk.
“MOM contains irreplaceable immune modulating factors including commensal bacteria,” explain the researchers. “Feeding preterm infants MOM has been shown to decrease NEC and sepsis with even small amounts of MOM providing some protection.”
“Since MOM contains a unique and unchanging microbiome, providing infants their own mother’s milk may be beneficial, especially for infants born preterm, at risk for infection and other premature specific morbidities,” they add.
If all that weren’t enough, the researchers were able to lay out the best strategy to restore the microbiota: incubate DMW with 10% of MOM for approximately 4 hours.
All of this is pretty fascinating, wouldn’t you say? I consider myself someone who knows a heck of a lot about breastfeeding and breastmilk, but I continue to be astounded by the remarkable superpowers of breastmilk, and what our bodies are capable of doing and making, especially with a little help from science.
It’s wonderful news for moms of preemies, who are under a tremendous amount of stress, and are looking to do whatever they can to keep their babies healthy and strong. Hopefully, as the research deepens and news spreads, more hospitals will offer moms the option of “personalizing” donor milk with their own.