You know how I’m always harping on and on about how we could be doing studies that actually help us protect infant health, rather than guilt-tripping mothers? My fairy godmother must’ve been listening, because today I stumbled upon an interesting article, courtesy of Mammals Suck (maybe she is a fairy godmother? Scientists can be fairy godmothers, can’t they?)
Featured on Nature.com, the article described two findings about the sugars in breastmilk. The first discovery was that one of the human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) – the sugar molecules present in breastmilk - can actually increase the chance of mother-to-child HIV transmission.
The molecule, called 3′-sialyllactose (3′-SL), is found in varying concentrations in the milk of different women. In a study in Zambia, HIV-negative newborns breastfed by HIV-positive mothers are twice as likely to catch the virus during their first month of life if the mother’s milk has an above-average level of 3′-SL1.
Doesn’t sound like the most positive news, but wait: only certain women’s milk contains significant enough levels of the sugar to place their babies in danger. Plus, other sugars have a positive effect:
The same study in Zambia found that five more of the 150-odd complex sugars in breast milk seem to have a protective effect. HIV-negative infants who consumed these sugars had a better chance of reaching their second birthday than did HIV-negative babies who drank breast milk lacking those sugars irrespective of their mothers’ HIV status. (Once a baby had caught HIV, however, breast-milk sugars had no influence on survival.)
The second part of the article described research into why some babies are not able to fight off necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), despite being fed human milk. Breastmilk contains oligosaccharides that fight off this deadly infection – but as it turns out, not all women produce these sugars:
(A team) reported an association between a dangerous gut disease in babies called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and the inability of affected infants to secrete a suite of oligosaccharides in their mucus. These babies are considered particularly likely to benefit from drinking the sugars via breast milk, but about 10% of European women cannot make them in their milk…
Okay, so this is where it gets really interesting. Both of these examples suggest that depending on the composition of a particular woman’s milk, the health benefits of breastfeeding may not be identical across populations. A researcher quoted in the article hypothesized that “(t)he often confusing literature on breast feeding’s impact on disease will be largely explained by this underestimation (of the variation in human milk).” The article also explains how “(s)everal labs are trying to identify how variation in the prevalence of the large sugar molecules in breast milk… influences infant health. Once clear links are established, clinical trials to test HMOs as health-boosting additives in infant formula milk can be drawn up.”
Yep, you read it correctly, FFFs. And I think we can all take a moment for a collective sigh of relief. Not all researchers are so entrenched in their public policy advocacy efforts that they forget to see the forest for the trees! Not all lactation scientists are lactation consultants! Some are – dare I say it – scientists.
I fear that this is the type of research that gets pushed under the rug, because it requires critical thinking. There isn’t an easy soundbite that can appeal to the masses – in the first example, the answer is not to tell HIV+ women in developing countries to use formula until they are tested for the specific HMO, because formula feeding in resource-poor countries with contaminated water is a high-risk activity. But perhaps more research could lead to some sort of treatment which would help these women lower their levels of 3′-SL and increase the beneficial HMOs.
Similarly, what if a preemie’s mom wanted to get her breastmilk tested to see if it contained the necessary HMOs to protect her baby? And if she found that she was part of the 10% who didn’t produce these beneficial sugars, perhaps that could allow her to make an informed decision about using donor milk, while either pumping to keep up her own supply, or deciding to switch to formula once the baby was older.
Research like this allows for progress. It allows us to understand exactly what it is about breastmilk that makes it so beneficial, which might lead to better, more biologically “equivalent” options for women who can’t or choose not to breastfeed. But even taking it away from the infant feeding choice powderkeg for a minute, I think it’s an interesting thing to ponder why certain people are so uncomfortable with the suggestion that not all breastmilk is perfect milk. I mean, I understand it – who the hell is science to tell a woman that her milk isn’t “good enough”?
But people – this is exactly why we can’t be wishy-washy about whether breastfeeding is a personal act or a monitored, medicalized event. If we are going to pitch it to women based on statistics, telling parents that science has proven the medical necessity of nursing our young, then we must accept the risk that science could turn around and say “erm, you know what? I messed up. That’s only true for some women. Some gals just produce inferior milk.” While we might want to say screw you, science, and the horse you rode in on, we can’t. Because we used science in some very dirty ways when it suited our needs, and now it is hanging around like a rebound boyfriend who just doesn’t take a hint.
On the other hand, if we don’t allow medical authorities to lay down moral indictments based on the way we feed our babies, then we can easily kick science to the curb when it tries to tell us that our milk may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Personally, I don’t think either scenario is great. As that Facebook group with the funny memes says, I f**king love science. Because I don’t think it’s true science that is messing things up for women. I think it is zealotry dressed up as science – people who are so committed to a cause that they are unable to come into research with the open, curious mind so integral to the scientific process.
So, I think as women, as mothers, it is safe for us to applaud research like this. We have to trust that knowledge can be power, as long as it is handed to us free of extrapolation. It’s not scary to hear that formula fed babies aren’t protected from NEC if donor milk is made available to preemie parents, or if we know that good old science is doing its best to create a supplement that could offer our tiniest babies protection regardless of the quality or quantity of a new (and often highly stressed, given the circumstances) mother’s pumping efforts. It’s not guilt-inducing to hear that breastfed babies have a higher IQ if we know exactly why this is – if it is an association, or something about the physical closeness during the act of nursing (which could easily be recreated by a bottle-feeding parent using a bit of imagination and less clothing) or something specific in the milk (in certain milk? Do some women increase their baby’s intelligence, and some women decrease it? Who the heck knows until we look into it?).
We can’t be scared of science, and we can’t abuse it. And scientists can’t be scared of staying neutral, and can’t abuse their power. If we can give each other this mutual respect, maybe we can turn this into a beautiful relationship. Even if it did start out as a rebound…