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Early Hum Dev. 1997 Oct 29;49 Suppl:S7-28.

Properties of human milk and their relationship with maternal nutrition.

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Unit of Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, University of Bristol, UK.


The composition of human milk varies over the course of lactation and in each individual. The volume of breast milk produced is related to the weight of the infant. Human milk is markedly different from cows' milk, both in terms of macronutrients and micronutrients. This includes the types of fatty acids present and factors affecting their absorption. The types of proteins present and their relative proportions and both qualitative and quantitative differences in the non-protein nitrogen fraction. There is much less lactose in cows' milk than breast milk and the oligosaccharide fraction is very different. Their are major differences in content and absorption rates of vitamins and minerals from breast milk compared to cows' milk or formula milk. Vitamin D and vitamin K status are possible problems for the breast-fed infant in certain circumstances. The nutritional status of the mother appears to influence fat concentration and thus the energy content of breast milk as well as its fatty acid composition and immunological properties. There is no coherent evidence, however, that the protein or lactose concentrations are greatly affected. There is some evidence that the concentration of vitamins in the breast milk are influenced by the mother's intake. Minerals are less variable, with the exception of selenium. The response of the infant to human and formula milk differs with respect to endocrine function, stool motility, immune function and renal function. Infant formula milks are designed to mimic human milk as much as possible, but this is unlikely to ever be completely successful. A number of important compositional differences between human milk and formula milk remain. This includes the types and proportions of fatty acids present (which may be of developmental importance), the nature of the non-protein nitrogen component (also possible developmental importance) and the presence of immunoglobulins and fibronectin (which may protect the infant against infection).

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