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What's in Breast Milk Will Surprise You

Photograph by Getty Images

It can be tempting for breastfeeding moms to think that we’ve got it made in the shade when it comes to our baby’s nutrition.

No worries here, thanks, our babies get complete nutrition from these fountains of liquid gold. *Pats our respective breastfeeding backs here. *

But the truth is, there is a lot about breast milk that we still don’t understand. For instance, breast milk doesn’t contain the necessary amount of Vitamin D that most babies need, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents give exclusively breastfed babies Vitamin D drops every day.

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It’s important to see the studies dedicated to researching the specific qualities of breast milk because in understanding its composition and benefits, we can only better nourish babies, no matter if their parents choose to breast- or formula-feed.

And there’s a lot about breast milk that may surprise you—like the fact that it’s alive and can look pretty crazy under the microscope. Or the fact that breast milk contains one important ingredient that doesn’t even nourish your baby at all, but instead just feeds bacteria living in the gut.

Yup, you read that right. Your precious breast milk? It's also a favorite food for bacteria.

Human breast milk contains a huge percentage of special sugars, called oligosaccharides, which are partially digested by the baby but mostly pass through the intestines intact. So why do they exist?

We talk a mean game about breast milk, but even today, we’re still not really sure what exactly makes the stuff so great.

To get science-specific on you, one study explains how the bacterium Bifidobacterium infantis, which is present only in babies, uses oligosaccharides “as a sole sugar source.” Or, in other words, breast milk produces special sugar that feeds bacteria in your baby’s gut.

However, this is not as horrifying as it may sound. Bacteria, we are discovering, is what makes the world go `round. We need bacteria and bacteria need us. Some scientists even envision a day when instead of fighting infection with antibiotics, we will instead feed our body “good bacteria” that will help us get healthy again.

What’s really interesting about this specific sugar in breast milk is that it only fuels certain bacterium in your baby’s gut, which begs the question, why is that bacteria so important? What is its function? What happens when babies’ guts are lacking those bacteria? And while we may not have all the answers just yet, adding oligosaccharides to infant formula has improved babies’ digestive health as well, as science gains the ability to learn from nature’s first food.

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Long story short, we talk a mean game about breast milk, but even today, we’re still not really sure what exactly makes the stuff so great. In learning more about the specific components of breast milk and exactly what they do, we can go a long way in better supporting both breast and formula-fed babies.

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