Bifidobacteria Found in Breastmilk – Implications on Infant Nutrition


For many years, research has shown that breastmilk contains prebiotics – non-digestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth of probiotics and balance the intestinal flora. It was originally thought that breastmilk did not contain probiotics, but merely promoted the growth of bifidobacteria due to the presence of the prebiotics. However, recent research has proven that breastmilk does contain probiotics – numerous strains of bifidobacteria – which have been shown to balance the intestinal flora and help develop a healthy immune system in infants. Clinical trial results showed that more than 85% of breastmilk samples contained bifidobacteria,1,2 further supporting the immune benefits offered by probiotics.

In infancy, bifidobacteria help promote gut barrier function and modulate immune system response.3-8 In our increasingly sterile environment, infants born via C-section, who receive antibiotics, or who are formula-fed (without probiotic-supplementation) stand to benefit the most from bifidobacteria supplementation.

Probiotic benefits can be maintained through childhood when supplementation is continued as solid foods are introduced into a toddler’s diet. A routine infant or toddler formula containing bifidobacteria helps to build a predominance of bifidobacteria in the gut, and positively promote a balanced intestinal flora.

Why choose bifidobacteria for infant formula?
Bifidobacteria are naturally found in breastmilk, impacting the microbial composition of an infant’s intestinal flora. They make up 80–90% of the total intestinal flora of breastfed infants.9,10 Supplementation helps increase acidification of the gut lumen, secretory IgA production and mucin, and decreases gut barrier permeability.3-6,10-13 Recommending a routine infant formula containing bifidobacteria would be a natural choice after breastfeeding is discontinued.

Probiotics for preterm infants
In the NICU, preterm infants who are receiving formula are most often fed with a formula that is specially designed to meet their unique nutritional needs. Unfortunately necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a prevalent condition in this fragile population. It is often devastating, associated with increased morbidity and mortality in preterm infants.14 The exact pathogenesis of NEC is still not fully understood, but mucosal injury from a number of factors seems to be one main reason.

The associated effects of bifidobacteria on gut barrier function and general immune-system support have been studied in the context of many disease states, including NEC. Emerging science has indicated positive results when probiotics were used in preterm infants with NEC. In a meta-analysis of 9 trials with 1425 preterm infants, probiotic supplementation significantly reduced the incidence of severe NEC (stage II–III), and mortality.14 NEC is primarily a disease of preterm infants. Of the 1–7.7% of NEC cases in the NICU, 10% may occur in term infants, so these findings may be relevant in this population as well.15 At present, there are no preterm formulas containing probiotics, so breastmilk is the sole source of probiotic cultures for these infants. However, once the preterm infant is ready to progress to a routine formula, a probiotic-supplemented formula could be considered.

Bifidobacteria supplementation is safe from birth for all infants
Probiotic use has a robust safety record in infants5,16 – right from birth. Bifidobacteria is one of the most commonly studied, and widely used probiotics. It has been extensively studied in infants for nearly 20 years, and has not been shown to cause negative effects such as infection when consumed. Specifically, Nestlé has been nourishing infants with formula containing Bifidobacterium lactis (B. lactis) for more than 15 years and in 30 countries — and has recently brought these beneficial formulas to the U.S.

In 2007, the first FDA-authorized routine infant formula in the U.S. containing bifidobacteria was introduced. There are formulas with beneficial cultures available that may be used routine infants (from 0-12 months) as a supplement to, or an alternative to breastmilk when breastfeeding is not an option. A formula, with beneficial cultures for older babies and toddlers was introduced in 2008 and is appropriate for toddlers (9–24 months) as they transition to solid foods.



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