What You Probably Didn’t Know About Breastmilk

Did you know that breastmilk contains stem cells?

How cool is that?! You won’t find that in any infant formula.

The short and long-term benefits of breastfeeding may be something that you’ve heard before, but new research has identified 1000’s of factors and co-factors in breastmilk that we are just beginning to understand. I’d like to share with you a few of the things I’ve been learning that you may not already know about the magic of breastmilk.

At the end of September last year, I had the honor of attending and speaking at the Child Flourishing Conference at Notre Dame University in Indiana with some of my long time heroes and a few new amazing people I hadn’t yet met.

I was really taken by one of the researchers, Dr. Elizabeth Ann Quinn, Assistant Professor of Physical Anthropology, Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, and her research on breastmilk.

She and her colleagues have been studying human milk, along with the short and long term effects of breastfeeding. She’s especially interested in the obesity epidemic and breastfeeding’s role in preventing obesity.

Human milk is composed of protein, lactose and water, and fat. It is a living substance and changes depending on what the baby needs during a single feeding, throughout the day, and over the course of the year or more. It contains macronutrients, hormones, growth factors, immune factors, probiotics, micronutrients and antioxidants.

It has been observed that breastmilk has tremendous potential to convey information across generations, as an extension of the placenta’s role after the birth of the baby. When the baby is in the womb, the placenta is a dynamic organism conveying lots of information to the baby about how to prepare for life in the world.

For example, hormones coming through the placenta help communicate if the world is safe or hostile and which resources will be needed after birth (does baby need strong muscles to survive or a big brain to think?). In a similar way, breastmilk continues to convey information to the baby’s body through the mother’s immune system and hormones like leptin, which we will be discussing in a few minutes, and what the baby’s body needs to prioritize for survival. More on this in a moment.

Stem Cells!

Stem cells were just discovered in breastmilk in the last year or so in Dr. Quinn’s lab, so the potential of those stem cells and what they’re doing in the infant’s body and also for the mother is very exciting and warrants further study.

Stem cells are the reason some parents bank the cord blood for their babies in the event of an illness where stem cells could be helpful. But it is right there in the breastmilk designed specifically for your baby!

Benefits of Breast Milk

In our culture, we compare formula (as the norm) to breastmilk instead of using the biological norm of breastfeeding and looking at the differences of formula, which is the new kid on the block. That said, it is a bit of a shock to read about the risks of formula feeding, so I am keeping Dr. Quinn’s original information as benefits of breastmilk. Let’s keep it positive.

“The longer that a baby receives human milk, the greater the benefits.” Dr. Elizabeth Ann Quinn

 Short-term benefits of breast milk

-Decreased infections

-Decreased respiratory infections

-Decreased ear infections

-Decreased all-cause mortality (in fact, even in our low pathogen environment here in the US, 1000 deaths per year can be attributed to not breastfeeding!)

Long-term benefits of breast milk

-Decreased risk of stroke

-Decreased risk of Type 2 Diabetes

-Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease

-Decreased risk of metabolic syndrome

-Decreased risk of obesity

The really mind-blowing part of the presentation came at the end when Dr. Quinn explained that when a baby is receiving infant formula, the baby is not receiving some of the critical hormones found in human milk- insulin, leptin, and adiponectin, which have recently been discovered. Basically, the baby’s body reads these missing elements as a blank and interprets that information as the environment can’t support the baby. In breastmilk, low levels of these hormones are found in mothers without adequate food or poor nutritional status. The baby’s body then begins to put on more fat early to protect him or herself from the inevitable weaning and probably less than adequate nutrition that awaits. So it is like a switch is clicked for the baby and fat needs to be stored for survival and longitudinal studies have found that this can be correlated to adult BMIs.

I also found it interesting in these studies that in these countries where there is less than adequate food and the levels of these hormones are low, the BMIs measured as high in adults (you heard that right- this affects the individual into adulthood!) is where our BMIs begin in the US.

So what you eat or don’t eat as a baby has a direct relationship to your BMI as an adult, interestingly especially in men.

So the most effected people in these developing countries who were considered to have high BMI’s in their countries and were at the top of their scales were at the beginning of our scale here in the US and we go up from there. Our lowest quartile was their highest quartile. Our lightest people are the same as their heaviest people.

That was a bit sobering.

I guess the thing that really struck me in this research was that breastfeeding isn’t just a way to keep a baby alive until he or she is old enough to eat regular food, but a complex, living system responsible for growth and health throughout the life span. It transmits data from previous generations about pathogens and responds to those specific infections when the mother has already had an illness and boosts both the immune system of the mother and nursing child. Breastmilk contains immune factors that are always present along with responsive immune factors depending on what illnesses mother and baby are exposed to. (You can read more about that here on Dr. Quinn’s blog: http://biomarkersandmilk.blogspot.com/2015/01/milk-remembers-immune-factors-in-milk.html)

At the end of the presentation, Dr. Quinn remarked that this information is valuable whether infants are fed formula or breastmilk because it will allow us to understand more of what is biologically normal and necessary for proper long term development. For babies who need formula, it is important to understand what’s missing in what they’re being fed.

Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at why we struggle so much to breastfeed our children in this country for more than a few months, if at all, and what we can do to support breastfeeding mothers and protect the breastfeeding relationship.

If you’re interested in watching Dr. Quinn’s presentation at the Child Flourishing Conference in its entirety, you can see it here:


You can learn more about Dr. Quinn and her work here: https://anthropology.artsci.wustl.edu/quinn_ea

Originally posted on The Consciously Parenting Blog August 5, 2015

Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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