The Power of Human Milk Oligosaccharides

he Power of Human Milk Oligosaccharides in Infant Nutrition

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Human milk oligosaccharides are beneficial prebiotics that can nourish your baby's immune system.

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A mother holds a sleeping baby in her arms.

JAN. 19, 2024  2 MINUTE READ

Breast milk is the gold standard for babies’ nutrition — with a perfect blend of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and other components that support a baby's immune system. Within this nutritional powerhouse, there are unique prebiotics called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). Based on over two decades of research, experts believe HMOs could be one of the factors behind breast milk's immune system-supporting properties.

Until 2016, HMOs were only found in human breast milk and not available to exclusively formula-fed babies. Now, thanks to cutting-edge research, those who choose to use formula can opt to feed their babies formula that has a blend of five different HMOs.  

What Are HMOs?

HMOs are unique, non-digestible complex carbohydrates with a prebiotic role; in other words, they feed the good bacteria in your baby's gut. They are the third most abundant component in breast milk (after fat and lactose) and account for up to 10% of breast milk. There's more HMO than protein in breast milk.

"HMOs feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut where 70% of a baby's immune system is found," according to Rachael Buck, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at Abbott specializing in immune health. "But what's very special about HMOs is that they are also absorbed into the bloodstream. This is how experts believe they support the immune system beyond the gut."

Breakthrough Formula

Over 150 different HMOs are found in breast milk and 2′-FL HMO (2′-fucosyllactose) is the most abundant HMO in most mothers’ milk. In 2016, Abbott researchers compared markers of immune response among exclusively breastfed babies compared to babies who were exclusively fed formula with and without a structurally identical version of the 2′-FL HMO found in breast milk.

Researchers discovered that after 6 weeks, babies fed infant formula with 2′-FL HMO had some markers of immune response more like breastfed babies, compared to babies fed a formula without 2′-FL. 2′-FL HMO helps to close multiple gaps in markers of immune function between formula fed and breastfed babies.*

"These groundbreaking results found babies who were fed infant formula supplemented with 2′-FL HMO had an immune response more like breastfed babies," Buck explained.

Since then, Abbott added four additional HMOs — structurally identical to those in breast milk — to its formula. Similac® 360 Total Care® has an exclusive blend of five HMO** prebiotics: 2′-fucosyllactose (2′-FL), 3-fucosyllactose (3-FL), lacto-N-tetraose (LNT), 3′-sialyllactose (3′-SL) and 6′-sialyllactose (6′-SL). This is our closest prebiotic blend to that of breast milk.

Options for Your Baby

While breast milk is optimal, moms who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, or those who need to supplement, can consider an infant formula with five different HMOs. It’s one of our groundbreaking steps toward narrowing the gap between breast milk and formula.

"We want to give parents choices so they can choose what feeding plan is best for them and their baby," Buck said.

* as measured in blood samples in a clinical study.
** not from human milk.

Article originally published May 8, 2018.

The Promising Role of HMOs in Reducing Risk of NEC

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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. 

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How HMOs Can Support Infant Cognition

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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. 

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