HMOs: What are they, and how do they benefit babies and children?

Human breast milk is truly a wonder of nature, providing babies with all the nutrients they need to grow and develop. It’s a unique and special food that no other food or drink can provide. It’s full of vitamins, minerals, and antibodies that help protect babies from illnesses.

Breastmilk also helps to promote healthy brain development and is known to reduce the risk of obesity, asthma, and allergies. For mums, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The benefits of breastmilk certainly don’t stop there. Although we now know so many incredible things about its composition, it is such a complex substance and there is still a great deal to learn.

One fascinating component that’s been identified that you may not be aware of – in fact, the third largest solid component, following lactose and fats – is Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs). Here, we break down just what HMOs are, and how they can benefit your baby.

HMOs: What are they, and how do they benefit babies?

HMOs are a type of carbohydrate found in human milk that can provide numerous health benefits. Most significantly, they are thought to play an important role in the development of a baby’s immune system and digestive function, and they also help to provide protection against infection and allergies.

When your baby consumes breastmilk and the HMOs reach their large intestine, they are not digested or absorbed in their gastrointestinal tract, and they are not broken down by enzymes in the gut.

Instead, HMOs are considered prebiotics, which means they are used as food for the beneficial gut bacteria. They are fermented in the gut and the end-product (otherwise known as ‘metabolites’) of this fermentation process provides health benefits in the form of improved digestion, better absorption of nutrients, and increased protection from pathogens.

Studies have shown that HMOs can:

  • Stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria, such as Bifidobacteria, in the infant’s gut, where 70% of the immune system exists. This helps to protect the infant from infection and disease, such as diarrhoea, as well as improve the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
  • Bind to pathogens (another name for organisms that cause disease) and block their attachment to the gut wall, preventing them from entering the bloodstream and causing disease.
  • Stimulate the production of antibodies in the infant’s immune system and can increase the activity of certain immune cells, such as neutrophils and macrophages (both of which attack pathogens and repair damage). This can help to protect the infant from infection and disease and improve their overall health.
  • Improve the absorption of minerals and vitamins, as well as reduce the risk of developing certain diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

In other words, HMOs can protect your little one from getting sick and improve their general health and wellbeing.

How your child can receive HMOs if you’re not breastfeeding

The great news is that through scientific innovation, structurally identical HMOs to those found in breastmilk can now be created in the form of a supplement for children. This innovative ingredient brings us scientifically closer to providing key components of breastmilk to Australian toddlers and children long after they have finished breastfeeding.

A supplement that contains HMOs along with a vitamin like Vitamin D could provide children with the nutrients necessary to support healthy immune system function, helping them to fend off illnesses. It could be especially helpful for children who have difficulty maintaining a healthy diet, or who go to daycare and are exposed to endless viruses.

Additionally, an immune defence supplement could help to reduce the amount of time a child spends sick, allowing them to get back to their normal activities more quickly.

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