The importance of breastfeeding for a woman’s and child’s health has been well established.
For example, babies who are not breastfed have an increased risk of infection (e.g. gastrointestinal, respiratory and ear) and mothers who don’t breastfeed have an increased risk of breast cancer.
It’s not surprising therefore leading health organisations recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and for breastfeeding to then continue alongside suitable complementary foods for 2 years and beyond.
Breastfeeding and Meningitis
Recent research has shown that one other way breastfeeding may be important is to help protect babies from meningitis.
Meningitis is when the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meninges) become infected. It requires immediate medical attention as it can lead to death.
So, what might it be about breastfeeding that might help protect babies against meningitis?
Sugars In Breastmilk May Help Protect Babies Against Meningitis
Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a bacteria that can be found in the bowel and vagina of up to one third of women. The presence of this bacteria is harmless to women.
About 50% of women with GBS in their bowel or vagina transfer it to their baby during childbirth. About 1-2% of these babies develop pneumonia, sepsis and/or meningitis in the first three postnatal months.
A complex type of sugar in breastmilk (oligosaccharides) may help protect babies from infection due to GBS. Once ingested by the baby, multiple functions have been attributed to oligosaccharides.
For example they are prebiotics or food for the good bacteria in a baby’s gut helping good bacteria to flourish and out-compete harmful bacteria. They also act as decoys by fooling harmful bacteria into thinking they are a type of human cell that can be invaded – harmful bacteria attach onto them and are then excreted out of the body.
In these ways, oligosaccharides are part of the myriad of ways breastmilk helps protect babies against illness.
Each woman’s breastmilk contains a mixture of many different types of oligosaccharides. The types of oligosaccharides a woman has in her breastmilk are partly determined by her genetics. In particular, a type of genetic system (the Lewis antigen system) plays an important role in determining which type of oligosaccharides a woman’s breastmilk contains.
In the recent study, 183 women had their breastmilk tested for the oligosaccharides known to be controlled by these Lewis genes.
The women and their babies were also tested for GBS at birth, six days and between 60-89 days after birth.
The study found women who produced breastmilk oligosaccharides linked to the Lewis gene were less likely to have GBS in their gut, and their babies were also less likely to get the bacteria from their mothers during childbirth.
Also, among babies who had GBS in their gut at birth, the babies whose mothers produced a specific oligosaccharide (lacto-n-difucohexaose I) in their breastmilk were more likely to have cleared the bacteria from their body by 60-89 days after birth.
Hence, this particular oligosaccharide linked to the Lewis gene may have a protective effect against GBS.
And, laboratory testing revealed breastmilk containing this particular oligosaccharide was better at killing GBS compared to breastmilk without this particular oligosaccharide.
About 50% of women are thought to make the lacto-n-difucohexaose I oligosaccharide.
Researchers hope their findings may lead to the possibility of giving specific oligosaccharide supplements to pregnant and breastfeeding women who don’t carry the active Lewis gene and hence help protect GBS from getting into a baby’s gut.
Dr Nicholas Andreas, lead author of the research from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London said “If we know whether a mother is colonised with Group B streptococcus and know if she carries an active copy of the Lewis gene, it may give us an indication of how likely she is to pass the bacteria on to her baby, and more personalised preventive measures could be applied.”
Breastmilk really is important for so many reasons. Let’s sit tight and wait for science to catch up even further, and discover what nature has known for eons.