For six months, WSU graduate student Mara Riley has been working with researchers Shelley and Mark McGuire to determine the effects of breastfeeding compared to a diet of infant formula. According to Riley, the research is unique because a study of this kind has not been attempted in the past.
“[Feeding techniques] have been looked at before, just never at this angle,” Riley said. “I’m looking just at what the [infant’s] gut is retaining, what bacteria might be passing through and where that comes from.”
Much is not known about breast milk. Until about ten years ago, for example, scientists believed that breast milk was sterile. Since then, science has discovered that
- breast milk affects gene expression in the stomach cells of infants;
- breast milk populates the gut with beneficial bacteria while formula breeds pathogenic bacteria in the gut;
- breast milk for boys and girls is different; and
- many other interesting facts about breast milk.
Riley hopes to use the results of the lactation nutrition study to help formulate healthier baby formula, especially those in countries with high infant mortality rates, such as the U.S.
“Is there a new bacterium we should put in formula that would prevent some kind of illness?” Riley asked.
“If we find out what the good bacteria are…we can manipulate women’s milk in natural ways so it is as protective as possible,” Shelley said. “We’re trying to understand normal, healthy physiology so we can intervene when things are not going well.”
The Washington State University Lactation Nutrition Project is funded in part through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative and through the Initiative for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies (IBEST).
Source: Expectant mothers participate in lactation project (pdf)
Newsletter: Breastfeeding Newsletter