Each day, babies drink millions to billions of cells from their mother's milk. Picture: Supplied

Have you ever wondered what exactly is in mother's milk? Breast milk contains a spectrum of live bioactive components – elements that affect different functions in the body. 

When added together, mother's milk has a role far, far, beyond nutrition alone, with medicinal qualities that play a crucial part in infant health now, and later in life. 

Biochemist Dr Danielle Prime, gives her top four reasons why mother’s milk is so amazing.

Living elements

One of the most amazing things about breast milk is that its living elements actively fight off threats to a baby's health. Each day, babies drink millions to billions of cells from their mother's milk.

One type of cell is a 'white blood cell' or immune cell. Usually there is only a small amount of immune cells in mature breast milk – up to 2%. But if a mother breathes, eats or drinks bacteria or viruses that might infect her or her baby, the immune cells shoot up to 94% of the milk’s cell count. 2 Once the threat o infection recedes, the milk changes back again.

Stem cells

Stem cells are another type of cell which are incredible as they are capable of both self-renewal and developing into different types of tissue. Scientists are still unravelling the possible function and benefits of these cells in breast milk, which remain a mystery for now. 

However, studies suggest they could migrate to the baby’s bones, fatty tissue, and liver and brain, and may offer them some sort of protection. 

Complex sugars

Mother's milk also contains huge numbers of complex sugars called oligosaccharides. These are prebiotics, in other words they feed the ‘good’ bacteria in the baby’s gut and help it develop a protective microbiota (a community of microscopic organisms that live in the gut and are needed for digestion and immunity). 

In addition, some oligosaccharides help block harmful bacteria – including the one that can cause pneumonia – from sticking to the baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Human breast milk contains more than 200 of these amazing oligosaccharides, whereas cow’s milk only contains 40. 

Overall, studies have found that an incredible 30% of the beneficial bacteria in a baby’s intestinal tract come directly from mother’s milk. And that’s not all – an additional 10% of bacteria come from the surface of the breast. So even the act of breastfeeding itself helps protect baby even further.

Protein

And of course, mother's milk contains protein. Proteins are often considered just 'food', but many of the proteins in breastmilk are bioactive, they have specific functions such as helping to absorb iron or chopping up bacteria. 

Antibodies are some of the most famous proteins in breast milk, they protect against bacteria and viruses. One of these, sIgA, coats the baby’s immature and permeable gut, which is susceptible to infection and disease. This reduces his risk of stomach upsets and diarrhoea, as well as stopping harmful substances entering his bloodstream. 

While this is already a long list, it’s only some of the ingredients in breast milk – and scientists are still discovering more. 

* Dr. Danielle Prime will be speaking about the value of human milk at The Baby Show & #MeetUp sponsored by Pampers, as part of the Pregnancy Sense Session by Medela.