We’ve all heard about the positively magical properties of breast milk, but in the science community it seems this liquid gold really is the gift that keeps on giving.
A sugar that is naturally present in breast milk has been shown to help babies’ immune systems to fight a rare and often fatal strain of meningitis in newborns.
According to the HSE, one in five pregnant women carry the Group B streptococcus (GBS) bacteria in their vagina and/or digestive system.
GBS bacteria are usually not harmful (infections affect only one in every 2,000 births) but they can be passed from mother to child during labour and can very dangerous for newborn infants.
Universal screening of carriers of GBS bacteria is not an option in Ireland. Therefore, healthcare professionals take a preventative approach to treating GBS infection by trying to identify babies at high risk of developing an infection.
If a doctor is concerned about a risk, antibiotics will be administered during labour to prevent the bacteria spreading to the baby.
According to researchers at the Imperial College of London, babies whose mother’s breast milk contained a particular sugar called lacto-n-difucohexose I were less likely to develop a GBS infection, even if their mother was carrying it. Tests showed that breast milk helped to expel deadly bacteria while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.
The research may also help scientists to figure out a way of adding the same beneficial sugars to formula.
The study was published in the journal Clinical & Translational Immunology.
What are the symptoms of GBS infection?
Babies with GBS infection may be very sleepy, floppy and not feed well. Other symptoms can include grunting, a high or low temperature, abnormally fast or slow heart rate or breathing rate, irritability, low blood pressure, and low blood sugar.