Breast milk could protect premature infants from sepsis

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A key ingredient in breast milk could be lifesaving

A new study conducted by researchers from Washington University School of Medicine explored how mothers’ breast milk could help protect their premature infants. 

The researchers learned that a molecule found in breast milk -- epidermal growth factor -- has properties that can prevent preemies from developing sepsis. Their study revealed that epidermal growth factor keeps the bloodstream free of gut bacteria that could cause sepsis. 

“Late-onset sepsis is a major problem in premature babies,” said researcher Dr. Rodney D. Newberry. “These findings give us a better understanding of one of the scenarios that triggers sepsis, and a potential new tool to combat this condition.” 

Protecting preemies

To better understand how breast milk can protect preemies from sepsis, the researchers conducted their study on newborn mice. The researchers took E.coli bacteria from infants with late-onset sepsis and injected them into the newborn mice. 

The second part of the study involved observing mice who were breastfed. The researchers explained that higher levels of epidermal growth factor are better for fighting off infection, and levels are typically highest when a mother first starts lactating. 

For this study, the newborn mice were either breastfed by their own mothers, or by another mother who had previously given birth. 

The researchers found that the longer a mother had been lactating, the more likely the newborn mice would develop an infection in the bloodstream that could turn into sepsis. Those who had been fed from their own mothers were less likely to develop such infections, as their breast milk had more epidermal growth factor. 

“The critical realization here is that bacteria from the gut can invade the bloodstream,” said researcher Dr. Phillip I. Tarr. “Understanding how bacteria moves from the gut into the blood gives us an opportunity to do something about these infections. And the study suggests that breast milk, preferably a mother’s own breast milk from her earliest days of breastfeeding, appears to be a very effective way to fend off these infections.” 

Moving forward, the researchers believe that these findings can serve as preventative measures to protect premature infants from developing infections that lead to sepsis. 

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