Breast may be best, but why isn't it better?

In honor of World Breastfeeding Week (yes, yes, I know–it ended yesterday), we need to talk about a widely overlooked aspect of breastfeeding, its recipients!

Nope, I am not talking about our babies. (After all, who could overlook them?) I am talking about their gut bacteria.

Breast milk contains special carbohydrates (called HMOs for Human Milk Oligosaccharides) designed to nourish specific gut bacteria, especially a type known as Bifidobacteria. Bifidobacteria contain genes desiged to metabolize HMOs–implying they have co-evolved with us for a long time.

This process of seeding your baby’s gut begins not with breastfeeding, though, but before birth. During pregnancy, women’s bodies cultivate these bacteria while pruning out others, seemingly in preparation to pass them onto our babies during birth.

Why does this matter? Health benefits.

Breastfeeding may benefit health indirectly–by cultivating the right gut bacteria. Scientists now believe that having the right balance of gut bacteria helps to calibrate your baby’s immune system and metabolism, possibly with lifelong effects.

I dig into the latest research on this breastfeeding-gut-health axis in my latest post for BloomLife. Check it out!…

2 thoughts on “Breast may be best, but why isn't it better?”

  1. OK, here’s a question for you… how can they even have a control group against which to measure what happens when babies DON’T take antibiotics? I read somewhere that the average American kid takes ~1.5-2 courses of antibiotics per year (17 in their first 20 years of life or so), and I don’t think I know anyone whose kid hasn’t taken antibiotics… I mean, if half the kids get them at birth, they must basically all have taken antibiotics within their first year of life. So how large are the error bars on the effect sizes on the studies that say kids who take antibiotics are 84% more likely to be obese, for example? Also, there have got to be some serious selection effects for the kids who don’t take antibiotics — I mean, those must be kids whose parents never take them to the doctor when they’re sick, right? I don’t doubt the deleterious effects of antibiotics at all (and I really wish I had felt confident in refusing antibiotics to treat my GBS colonization when my son was born), but if the correlation effects are so severe for breastfeeding (hence the breast vs. formula mommy wars), they must be off the wall for antibiotic usage too!


    1. That is a good question. My guess is that the distribution of antibiotic prescriptions is highly skewed. Lots of babies get none, some babies get 1-2 a year and then there’s a long tail of babies who receive multiple courses, because of complications such as prematurity.

      For what it’s worth, my son who is 6 has never had antibiotics, but daughter who’s 4 has had one course (for a double ear infection, which was probably unnecessary), and my baby has had antibiotic eye drops but no systemic antibiotics since birth. We go to the doctor, but only when necessary.

      And, as someone who has received IV antibiotics for GBS every labor and regrets it, I feel you on this point. Even with my background, it was impossible to push back against the amount of pressure they put on you while in labor.


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