Maternal breastmilk, infant gut microbiome and the impact on preterm infant health

Acta Paediatr. 2021 Feb;110(2):450-457. doi: 10.1111/apa.15534. Epub 2020 Sep 16.


Aim: This narrative review summarises the benefits of maternal breastmilk to both the infant and the mother, specifically the benefits that relate to modification of the infant microbiome, and how this might vary in the preterm infant.

Methods: We used PubMed to primarily identify papers, reviews, case series and editorials published in English until May 2020. Based on this, we report on the components of breastmilk, their associated hypothesised benefits and the implications for clinical practice.

Results: Breastmilk is recommended as the exclusive diet for newborn infants because it has numerous nutritional and immunological benefits. Additionally, exposure to the maternal breastmilk microbiome may confer a lasting effect on gut health. In the preterm infant, breastmilk is associated with a significant reduction in necrotising enterocolitis, an inflammatory gastrointestinal disease and reduction in other key morbidities, together with improved neurodevelopmental outcomes.

Conclusion: These impacts have long-term benefits for the child (and the mother) even after weaning. This benefit is likely due, in part, to modification of the infant gut microbiome by breastmilk microbes and bioactive components, and provide potential areas for research and novel therapies in preterm and other high-risk infants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Enterocolitis, Necrotizing* / prevention & control
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature
  • Milk, Human
  • Mothers