Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are unique prebiotics found naturally in breast milk that feed the good bacteria in the gut where approximately 70% of the immune system exists. While there are hundreds of different HMOs available in breast milk, the most abundant and well-researched among them is 2'-Fucosyllactose (2'-FL).
New findings from Abbott published in the Journal of Nutrition & Food Science suggests that HMOs may help support cognition and motor development in infants. The study found that 2'-FL and 6-sialyllactose (6'-SL) HMOs together may be helpful in brain development.
For the study, researchers collected a total of 82 human milk samples from women at one month postpartum to determine the impact of mothers’ weight and medical risk factors on breast milk composition. The women were asked to record weight and other variables, including gestational diabetes and smoking habits.
The results of the research showed that higher levels of 6'-SL HMO in breast milk was linked to higher cognitive and motor skills scores in breastfed infants at 18 months, regardless of the mothers’ weight, diabetic status or other variables. And, greater levels of both 2'-FL and 6'-SL HMOs together were associated with higher motor skills scores at 6 and 18 months of age.
Gross and fine motor skills are essential aspects of a child’s overall development. They allow a child to explore his or her environment, play with objects, demonstrate affection by reaching and holding, and demonstrate independence through mobility.
This research suggests HMOs may also be important in supporting brain development in babies.
Breastfed babies receive many protective immune components, including HMOs, that help build their immune system and now this critical research suggests they play a role in brain development. While breastfeeding remains the best option for babies, further studying the profound impact HMOs have can help us narrow the gap between formula and breast milk.
Rachael Buck, Ph.D., Pediatric Nutrition Senior Research Fellow at Abbott
After fat and lactose (a carbohydrate), HMOs are the third most abundant component in breast milk. But these special prebiotics aren’t broken down in a baby's digestive tract. Instead, they're digested by the beneficial bacteria that reside in their gut.
It is estimated that there are more than 150 different HMOs in breast milk, but the most abundant is 2′-fucosyllactose (2'-FL). Previous research explored the many benefits of 2'-FL, including its ability to support infant immune health and potentially have the effect of reducing necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition often plaguing premature infants and impacting gut health.
Breast milk, widely recognized as the "gold standard" in infant nutrition, is recommended whenever possible by leading healthcare professionals. But, for situations where breastfeeding may not be possible or breast milk is not available, there is a wealth of research showing the effects of HMOs and Abbott has determined how to bring them to infant formula. Abbott's team of world-class researchers has pioneered this path and is a leader in the field, introducing the first infant formulas with HMOs to the market in 2016.
“Breastfed babies receive many protective immune components, including HMOs, that help build their immune system and now this critical research suggests they [HMOs] also play a role in brain development. While breastfeeding remains the best option for babies, further studying the profound impact HMOs have can help us narrow the gap between formula and breast milk.” explains Rachael Buck, Ph.D., pediatric nutrition senior research fellow at Abbott.
Did you find this content helpful?YES NO
The Role of HMOs in Reducing NEC
Welcoming a new baby into the world should be an exciting time if you're an expecting parent. But when your child is born premature, it's normal to worry about the possible health challenges and complications they may face. Necrotizing enterocolitis, also known as NEC, is a rare condition that premature babies may develop during their first weeks of life. Though NEC can be managed, its effect on a child's health can be serious. NEC prevention may also be possible, according to new preliminary studies. Emerging preclinical research from Johns Hopkins and Abbott suggests that when premature babies are fed breast milk, the presence of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) in the milk may help reduce their chances of developing NEC. We sat down with Rachael Buck, Ph.D., a research fellow at Abbott Nutrition, to discuss necrotizing enterocolitis and the promising research surrounding it. What Is Necrotizing Enterocolitis? NEC is a disease that can affect newborns by causing inflammation in their intestines. With NEC, bacteria inside the intestinal tract can leak into the intestinal wall. Babies with NEC require a period of gut rest, which means they are temporarily nourished by intravenous nutrition. NEC may be fatal, depending upon how severely NEC affects the newborn, Buck explains. The specific cause of NEC is unknown, but it's most often seen in very low birth weight premature babies. In the United States, about 10% of babies who are born prematurely develop NEC. "While there are available NEC treatments, preventive strategies to aid infants at high risk for the disease are needed," says Buck. One prevention strategy that's already showing promise involves the use of HMOs. In new preclinical research from Johns Hopkins and Abbott, HMOs were shown to effectively prevent instances of necrotizing enterocolitis in animal models. What Are Human Milk Oligosaccharides?