Human breast milk contains thousands of different molecules, microbes and cells, which work together to provide the human baby with all the tools necessary to grow and develop normally. Many components of breast milk are still to be discovered, and the functions of many that have been are unknown.
All mammals, including humans, feed their young with milk. This was why Carl Linneus, the founder of classifying all life on the planet, originally used the word Mammalia (mamma = Latin for breast). Evolutionary biologists estimate that the ancestor of all mammals lived 310 million years ago, and oozed milk from their skin for their young to feed on after hatching from eggs. Over time, the skin glands that produced this milk became nipples, as a way to deliver the mother’s immune system to newborn babies to protect them from infections.
Food might well have been a second thought. This immune protection covered the vulnerable period of early life when a child’s immune system is not well developed.
Mothers may also benefit as the breast ramps up their own immune system to help recovery from birth. As babies grow up and start to explore their world and meet other children, animals and hazards, the amount of antibodies in breast milk increases, adding another layer of protection.
Along the course of putting the advert together, the science team has been fascinated by the gems of information that popped up. For example, breast milk contains over 200 types of a type of sugar, called oligosaccharides, most of which have unknown functions. Twenty oligosaccharides cannot be digested by the baby, but are there instead to feed the helpful bacteria found in breast milk and the infant gut. These bacteria will help to form a normal microbiome, which scientists and doctors are starting to understand helps the gut to develop, digest food, and support the immune system of the baby as they grow.
Mothers and babies communicate with each other through the process of breastfeeding – baby saliva can be sucked back into the nipple, sending information about infections and even signals in the form of tiny genetic messages. This rich fluid may hold many clues about human health during childhood, and how illnesses that start in adulthood may actually be patterned in our earliest days.
Research in the last 50 years has mainly focussed on describing individual milk components that could be copied and added to breastmilk substitutes, as there was a financial incentive behind this work. The role of breastmilk in infant development and protecting the mother from diseases such as breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease and diabetes has, until recently, been largely overlooked, and more funding and scientists working in these areas are urgently needed.
The Human Milk campaign hopes that people will become excited about both the current knowledge we have, and the potential of breast milk, and that the all-important funding will follow for researchers wanting to work in this field.
The Contents of Human Milk
Just live your normal life and eat a normal diet, and your milk will contain what you see below without you having to think about it.
Click this link full infographic to open a new window, where you can explore the contents in detail.
Human Milk, Tailor-Made for Tiny Humans
‘Human Milk, Tailor-Made for Tiny Humans’ is an independent public health initiative created voluntarily by a small group of parents, focusing on the composition of human milk and the science of breastfeeding.
It was initiated by music artist and film producer Claire Tchaikowski, with the intention of informing parents and their wider communities of the surprising content and workings of human milk.
The initiative comprises an advert, shot in Bristol, and a website which goes into substantial detail about the composition and functions of human milk. The website also includes sections on support for parents who are considering breastfeeding, or are already doing it.
What started as a small plan to shoot an advert with a few friends has ended up being a far reaching international collaboration.
More background on how the advert project began can be found here https://burst.agency/human-milk-breastfeeding-advert/.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/milk4tinyhumans/
Vimeo Link for embedding: https://vimeo.com/190696865
Dr Natalie Shenker PhD, Imperial College London, Co-Founder of The Hearts Milk Bank (http://heartsmilkbank.org/)
Dr Amy Brown, Associate Professor in Child Public Health, Swansea University, and Author of ‘Breastfeeding Uncovered’.
Emma Picket IBCLC, London, Chair of The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers UK and Author of ‘You’ve Got It In You’.
Laurel Wilson BS, IBCLC, CCE, CLE, Board of Directors for The United States Breastfeeding Committee, Executive Director of Lactation Programs for the Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association USA.
Olivia Bibollet-Bahena PhD, Montreal.