Motherhood piqued my interest and gave me yet another reason to delve into the science behind breastmilk. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that breast milk manages to provide the nutrients necessary for the development of a child during the first months of life. Although breastfeeding is a natural process, it is not always an easy journey for mother and/or baby.
There is not much information about what happens at the cellular level in human breast tissue during breastfeeding. A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) analyzed 50 breast milk samples and successfully isolated more than 48,000 cells using technology that can determine which genes are present in a cell at that exact time. .
This analysis showed that there are 10 types of cells, including a healing cell population, two types of epithelial cells with a wide variety of functions such as protection, secretion, absorption, excretion, filtration, diffusion and sensory reception, and seven types of immune cells. Human breast milk cells even change over time in nursing mothers. One type of epithelial cells, lactocytes, are abundant in breast milk. The researchers discovered a group of cells that are the main cells for milk production, and another group responsible for the structural role in the mammary gland. The amount of these lactocytes involved in milk production tends to vary depending on the changing nutritional needs of infants as they grow.
Changes in the composition of breast milk are also linked to changes in the lifestyle and health of the infant or mother. Despite the nutritional value of breastmilk, the WHO reports that less than half of infants (41%) under six months of age worldwide are exclusively breastfed. The reasons for this tend to range from health issues, to exhaustion, to society judging mothers for breastfeeding in public.
It is widespread in Europe but also in our Maltese society. Malta still suffers from a low breastfeeding rate compared to other European countries. According to a 2018 local report, the percentage of Maltese mothers who breastfeed within the first hour of birth was 64.4%. This percentage dropped to 9.6% in the first six months.
The science of breastfeeding is fascinating. However, policies and culture need a major shift to help mothers if and whenever possible and provide the support needed to undertake this difficult journey.
Danielle Martine Farrugia is a science communicator, lecturer and doctoral student.
• Gene mutation found in mothers linked to low breast milk supply – Researchers at Penn State College of Medicine have found that women who perceive insufficient lactation are more likely to have a specific genetic mutation in breast tissue. Researchers suggest that screening for this mutation along with other factors such as age and body mass index may help mothers who are more likely to stop breastfeeding prematurely due to this perceived lack of milk supply. .
• Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Sleeping Positions in Infants: Researchers found that while sleeping position is the main known modifiable risk factor for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), 41.3% of infants under six months in Spain sleep in a -position recommended. This percentage increases to 59.7% for infants aged 6 to 11 months. The paper advocates for personalized education as well as other campaigns on how to prevent SIDS.
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DID YOU KNOW?
• Pasteurization was originally intended for wine, not milk.
• The process of making breast milk is called lactation, where breast milk is secreted from the mammary glands located in the breast.
• Human mammary glands can produce over a liter of milk per day. This doubles if the mother has twins.
• Mastitis is an inflammation of the breast tissue, and although it is more common during breastfeeding, men can also suffer from it.
• The breasts are like fraternal rather than identical twins, with one breast larger than the other.
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