New scientific research has found another compelling reason for women to breastfeed their babies – the discovery of stem cells in human breast milk.
Dr Mark Cregan and his team at The University of Western Australia’s School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences are working to dispel the myth of equality between infant formulae and human breast milk by demonstrating the unique bioactive nature of the latter for infants.
By isolating the cellular component from breast milk, growing these cells in a laboratory and looking for specific cellular markers, Dr Cregan’s group have found stem cells.
"This work clearly demonstrates that human breast milk is a unique medium that cannot be equaled by infant formula," Dr Cregan says.
"Further, their presence in human milk also raises a number of fundamental questions as to their role within the breast and in infant development."
Dr Cregan will present the findings at The 14th International Conference of the Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation (ISRHML) at UWA from January 31 to February 5, 2008.
"Human breast milk contains a rich source of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, micronutrients and cells and is the optimum food for the development of the newborn infant,” Dr Cregan says.
"Infant formulae do not contain this same rich mixture of compounds, but looks can be deceiving and due to the similar appearance of formula and breast milk, the former is often considered an adequate replacement for breastfeeding."
Dr Cregan says replacing breast milk with a cow or soy milk derivative leads to a greater risk of short and long-term disease for both mother and infant. For the mother, choosing not to breastfeed increases her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease and her body takes longer to return to its pre-pregnancy state.
For the newborn, lack of breast milk during the crucial early stages of development increases the risk of infection and SIDS early in life. Later, they are more susceptible to other childhood and juvenile illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, allergies, asthma, obesity, insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and some cancers such as lymphoma. Further research has shown that babies fed breast milk have a higher IQ and better scholastic abilities than infants who are not.
Despite the interest that stem cells in breast milk have created, Dr Cregan believes a defining legacy of this research will be seen in the health outcomes of the newborn child.
"This work provides us with a powerful tool in educating the medical profession and general community that human breast milk is unique and is the best choice for human babies," he says.
"By getting this message into the public domain, more mothers will choose to breastfeed their newborn infants for a greater period of time, improving the short and long-term health outcomes for both themselves and their child."