From the Cow & Gate Nutrition team
Bacteria in the gut play an important role in babies’ nutrition, physiology and natural immunity1,2. The healthy development of this microbiota starts at birth and is strongly influenced by a baby’s diet3.
Breastmilk is therefore the best diet for babies because it naturally contains a wide range of oligosaccharides.3 These soluble, but non-digestible carbohydrates selectively stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut, such as bifidobacteria.4
But if a mother decides not to, or ceases to breastfeed, it is important that an infant’s formula milk also supports their microbiota.
How can infant formula milks support a developing microbiota?
Some infant formula milks contain prebiotic oligosaccharides to improve their gut bacteria-promoting effects.3 Galacto- and fructo-oligosaccharides (GOS/FOS) are the most common additions in Ireland. Not all GOS/FOS prebiotic blends and levels are the same.
The ratio of GOS to FOS and the blend used in a formula milk is important.3 Clinical research has shown that a 9:1 ratio of scGOS/lcFOS*, designed to reflect the relative proportions of oligosaccharides in breastmilk, selectively stimulates the growth and activity of bifidobacteria in the gut of formula-fed babies.3,5 This specific blend has been shown to have a number of benefits in babies:
- Discourages the growth of harmful pathogens6,7
- Promotes healthy digestion, as indicated by softer more frequent stools5
- Improves feeding tolerance, with significantly less regurgitation and crying in connection with feeding8
Furthermore, this 9:1 blend of scGOS/lcFOS* reduced the incidence of allergic manifestations, such as atopic dermatitis, for up to 5 years in children with a predisposition for allergies.5, 9-11
Research in this area is ongoing, as is the search for alternative prebiotic oligosaccharides. Because of the complexity of breastmilk oligosaccharides, it is very unlikely that an identical source will be found naturally. However, analyses may identify oligosaccharides with functions similar to breastmilk, but that are different in structure.
No matter how this area of research develops, breastmilk will always remain the most effective means of promoting a healthy microbiota in babies. But for babies who are formula fed, prebiotics are a practical way to support the healthy development of their gut too.
*scGos/lcFOS: (short chain galacto-oligosaccharides/ long chain fructo-oligosaccharides)
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Breastfeeding is best for babies as it is perfectly suited to nourish infants and protect them from illnesses such as ear infections, stomach upsets, diabetes, eczema and obesity. Infant formula is suitable from birth when babies are not breastfed. It is recommended that all formula milks be used on the advice of a doctor, midwife, public health nurse, dietitian, pharmacist or other professional responsible for maternal and child care.
- Bourlioux p et al. The intestine and its microflora are partners for the protection of the host. Am j clin nutr 2003; 78: 675–683.
- O’Toole PW & Cooney JC. Probiotic bacteria influence the composition and function of the intestinal microbiota. Interdiscip perfect infect dis 2008; 175285.
- Boehm G & Stahl B. Oligosaccharides from milk. J Nutr 2007; 137: 847s–849s.
- Harmsen Hjm et al. Analysis of intestinal flora development in breasted and formula fed infants by using molecular identification and detection methods. J Ped gastroentrol nutr 2000; 30: 61–67.
- Moro G et al. Dosage related bifidogenic effects of galacto- and fructo-oligosaccharides in formula fed term infants. J pediatr gastroenterol nutr 2002; 34: 291–295.
- Knol J et al. An infant formula containing prebiotics changes the intestinal microflora of term infants. Jpgn 2003; 36: 566.
- Knol J et al. Colon microflora in infants fed formula with galacto- and fructo-oligosaccharides: more like breastfed infants. J pediatr gastroenterol nutr 2005; 40: 36–42.
- Moro G et al. A mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides reduces the incidence of atopic dermatitis during the first 6 months of age. Arch dis child 2006; 91: 814–819.
- Arslanoglu S et al. Early supplementation of prebiotic oligosaccharides protects formula-fed infants against infections during the first 6 months of life. J nutr 2007; 137: 2420–2424.
- Arslanoglu S et al. Early dietary intervention with a mixture of prebiotic oligosaccharides reduces the incidence of allergic manifestations and infections during the first 2 years of life. J nutr 2008; 138: 1091–1095.
- Arslanoglu S et al. Early neutral prebiotic oligosaccharide supplementation reduces the incidence of some allergic manifestations in the first 5 years of life. J biological regulators & homeostatic agents 2012; 26 (3S): 49-59.