Another mommy meltdown: Breast pumps could be transmitting asthma-causing bacteria

March 20, 2019

What’s a mother to do? In news that is especially bad for working moms—but also could complicate life significantly for stay-at-home moms—researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada say they have found harmful bacteria in the mouths of infants who have been fed breast-pumped milk, reports.

The study results—published in the journal, Cell Host & Microbe on February 13— revealed that breast pumps may not be as safe as previously thought. In fact, they may be contaminated with bacteria that can cause asthma in the babies later in life.

Led by Shirin Moosavi, a Ph.D. student in Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, the researchers compared babies who had been fed breast milk that had been pumped to babies who were directly breastfed.

Results showed that babies who were being directly breastfed had a rich diversity of bacteria in their mouths called the microbiome—which is beneficial for an infant’s  health and immunity.

On the other hand babies that were fed milk that had been pumped had harmful bacteria in their mouths that led to an increased risk of their getting asthma later in life. Indeed, the researchers believe, harmful bacteria thrive within the breast pumps and can be picked up by the babies when they use the bottles where the pumped milk is stored.

The bacterial genes from breast milks of 393 healthy mothers of infants aged three months to four months old were analyzed in the course of the study. The mothers and babies were part of the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study. The mothers are being tracked from their pregnancy until their babies reach adolescence for the longitudinal study.

The authors of the study write, “Although previously considered sterile, breast milk is now known to contain a complex community of bacteria that helps establish the infant gut microbiota … If this process is disrupted, the infant may develop a dysbiotic microbiota, causing predisposition to chronic diseases such as allergy, asthma and obesity.”

Results showed that milk given via breast pumps was found to contain high numbers of harmful bacteria known as “opportunistic pathogens.” While under normal conditions thee bacteria are harmless, opportunistic pathogens can lead to infections when the host immunity is low.

The authors note that respiratory tract infections caused by opportunistic pathogens can lead to repeated inflammation of the lungs and airways—and this can lead to an increased risk of asthma later in life.

The researchers warn that more study and understanding is needed before mothers stop feeding their babies pumped milk. “We need to understand the differences that happen after milk is expressed and stored,” co-author Meghan B. Azad said. “It’s not like pumped milk is awful, and it’s still very different [than]formula,” she explained. Azad said. “It’s important to know the differences so we can ask why, and figure out what to do to address any deficit.”

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