Breast milk contains a rich microbiota composed of viable skin and non-skin bacteria. The extent of the breast milk microbiota diversity has been revealed through new culture-independent studies using microbial DNA signatures. However, the extent to which the breast milk microbiota are transferred from mother to infant and the function of these breast milk microbiota for the infant are only partially understood. Here, we appraise hypotheses regarding the formation of breast milk microbiota, including retrograde infant-to-mother transfer and enteromammary trafficking, and we review current knowledge of mechanisms determining the extent of breast milk microbiota transfer from mother to infant. We highlight known functions of constituents in the breast milk microbiota-to enhance immunity, liberate nutrients, synergize with breast milk oligosaccharides to enhance intestinal barrier function, and strengthen a functional gut-brain axis. We also consider the pathophysiology of maternal mastitis with respect to a dysbiosis or abnormal shift in the breast milk microbiota. In conclusion, through a complex, highly evolved process in the early stages of discovery, mothers transfer the breast milk microbiota to their infants to impact infant growth and development.
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