Studies suggest that babies who are breastfed often have stronger immune systems due in part to a special prebiotic found naturally in breast milk.
But now, in a new study, researchers have shown how a new ingredient previously only found in breast milk can do wonders for baby when added to formula.
Kaitlin O'Rourke prefers to breastfeed her son Cillian, but as a busy working mother of two, it's not always possible. So, like millions of women, Kaitlin supplements her breast milk with infant formula.
"Breastfeeding my babies is the best thing nutritionally, but that doesn't always work out for me and my busy schedule," she says.
As nutritious as baby formulas have become, breast milk will always be the gold standard due in part to the immune support that breast milk provides. But researchers have moved a step closer.
"We've identified a key nutrient in breast milk that supports the developing immune system and, for the first time, we have been able to successfully add this ingredient to infant formula," says Dr. Rachael Buck.
The ingredient is known as HMOs, or human milk oligosaccharides. Dr. Rachael Buck is an immunologist and associate research fellow at Abbott, the parent company of Similac, who's studied HMOs for the last 15 years.
In breastfed babies, HMOs help healthy bacteria in the gut thrive. About 70 percent of the immune system exists in the gut.
And research shows some HMOs also circulate in the blood stream to support baby's developing immune system throughout the body.
"We wanted to replicate HMOs so that babies who drink formula can benefit from them," Dr. Buck says.
That's just what Dr. Buck has done.
In a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers followed more than 200 babies, comparing those who breastfed to those given formulas with a structurally-identical version of the most abundant HMO in most mothers' milk.
After six weeks, tests showed some of the immune markers found in breastfed and formula-fed babies were nearly identical.
"This is the first time that HMOs in infant formula have been shown to work, and, while we can't say that the formula will reduce infection, we can say that the formula closes multiple immune gaps between breastfed and formula-fed babies based on blood immune," says Dr. Buck.
Abbott is the parent company of Similac, the brand that will carry the new ingredient. It will cost about $2 more. Even though this research was self-funded by the manufacturer, it's being published in a peer reviewed medical journal which gives it credibility.