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Benefits of human milk oligosaccharides: healthy brain development for infants

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) have been shown to contribute to a healthy gut and immune system, as well as provide a barrier to gut infections. HMOs are also believed to promote healthy brain development. Research found that premature infants fed human milk perform better on developmental tests and have higher intelligence quotients than formula fed infants.1,2 A body of evidence suggests that brain development and cognition may partially depend on sialic acid. HMOs in mother’s milk are a rich source of sialic acid and may provide babies with a supplementary source of sialic acid as an essential nutrient for brain development and cognition. One study showed that sialic acid concentrations were significantly higher in the brains of breast-fed infants compared to infants fed formula (which contains significantly lower amounts of sialic than human milk). 3 One study proposed that when “good” gut bacteria feed on HMOs, the sialic acid is released from the HMOs structure.4 It remains to be investigated whether the released sialic acids from HMOs are actually a nutrient for infants’ brain development and if they contribute to superior developmental scores and intelligence quotients in breast-fed infants.


  1. Lucas A, Morley R, Cole TJ, Lister G, Leeson-Payne C. Breast milk and subsequent intelligence quotient in children born preterm. Lancet.1992 Feb 1;339(8788):261-4
  2. Belfort MB, Anderson PJ, Nowak VA, et al. Breast milk feeding, brain development, and neurocognitive outcomes: a 7-year longitudinal study in infants born at less than 30 weeks’ gestation. J Pediatr.2016 Oct;177:133-139.e1. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.06.045
  3. Wang B, McVeagh P, Petocz P, Brand-Miller J. Brain ganglioside and glycoprotein sialic acid in breastfed compared with formula-fed infants. Am J Clin Nutr.2003 Nov;78(5):1024-9. doi: 1093/ajcn/78.5.1024.
  4. Charbonneau MR, O’Donnell D, Blanton LV, Totten SM, Davis JC, Barratt MJ, et al. Sialylated milk oligosaccharides promote microbiota-dependent growth in models of infant undernutrition. 2016;164:859–71.