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Research: Variations in breast milk sugars may affect kids' growth

The joint research project involved Turku University and the University of San Diego in California.

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It's still not understood how far infant programming depends on variations in the components in breast milk. Image: AOP

The sugars in a mother's breast milk could influence a child's growth during early infancy, based on the findings of a joint study conducted by Turku University and the University of San Diego in California.

According to the research team, while it is well-known that breast milk regulates infant growth and protects against obesity in children, it's not understood how far infant development depends on variations in the components of breast milk.

The research examined samples of breast milk collected from about 800 mothers when their babies were about three months old. It also looked at the babies as part of a population-based birth cohort study, "Steps to healthy development of Children (STEPS)", conducted in Turku.

Researchers focused especially on oligosaccharides in breast milk. These are compounds that are exclusively found in high concentrations in human breast milk and are the most common substance in mother's milk, after lactose and fat.

Moreover, the composition of breast milk is unique as the composition of oligosaccharides is influenced by factors such as heredity.

Connection between mother's and baby's weight?

Researchers working on the study found that a mother’s pre-pregnancy weight index impacted on the composition of the oligosaccharides in her breast milk.

They concluded that this composition could in part explain a possible link between a mother’s weight (in cases where she is overweight), breastfeeding and the child’s risk of becoming overweight.

They also looked at two oligosaccharides that some commercial baby formula manufacturers add to their products.

The study concluded that the breast milk consumed by taller and heavier children had a lower level of oligosaccharide diversity than that of other infants. In addition, their mothers' breast milk had a higher proportion of 2'-fucosyllactose (2'FL) -- one of the most abundant oligosaccharides in human milk -- and a lower amount of lacto-N-neo-tetraose (LNnT), another oligosaccharide.

Possibilities for treating growth problems

According to researchers, the findings are consistent with and validate the results of other smaller-scale studies.

Lead Turku University researcher, Hanna Lagström called for caution in concluding that the oligosaccharide composition of breast milk and its variations are solely responsible for differences in children’s growth.

"If additional research reinforces these observations, it would be possible that in future certain oligosaccharides could be offered as a treatment option for some early childhood growth disorders and for obesity treatments," Lagström said in a statement.

The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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