Phospholipids in Breast Milk – What Are They and Why Are They So Important?

Phospholipids in Breast Milk

In collaboration with Nestle SHSH.

Babies are little bundles of energy! If you have one of your own, observe her, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly she learns even when she is cradle-bound. That’s because her brain is developing at a rapid rate. And, to support this development, she should be breastfed, because breast milk provides the nutrients her body requires to grow.

That is one of the primary reasons as to why breast milk is considered the gold standard of nutrition for babies. Breast milk consists of nutrients like DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), ARA (arachidonic acid), choline, iron, zinc, folic acid, and phospholipids, which are vital for the physical and mental development of babies. Out of these, phospholipids, a group of nutrients, are essential to prepare your little one’s brain and body for good future growth. Wondering how? Read this article to know what phospholipids are and why they are so important.

What Are Phospholipids?

Phospholipids or PLs are a specific group of nutrients found in breast milk. They are a class of phosphorous-containing polar lipids, which includes phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), phosphatidylcholine (PC), phosphatidylinositol (PI), and sphingomyelin (SM).

In breast milk, phospholipids are part of the membrane that surrounds the milk fat globule and enables fat to stay in the solution. 0.2-2.0% of the nutrients found in breast milk is present in the form of phospholipids, while 50% of the total energetic value corresponds to fat, with a high level of fatty acids.

Why Are Phospholipids Important?

Phospholipids are important for neural and brain development, maintaining cell membrane integrity (keeping the state of the complete membrane in perfect condition) and regulating inflammatory responses. They help establish brain connections, develop executive functions, and lead to learning. They also play a key role in lung development in babies.

The human brain consists of billions of neurons (nerve cells), and it is connected to the rest of the body with the help of the central nervous system. The entire setup works like an electrical circuit. The brain receives and sends electrical and chemical signals throughout the body with the help of neurons and synapses. Synapses are structures in the nervous system that allow neurons to pass signals to other neurons. Neurons are coated with thick sheaths of myelin, which enable the transmission of signals. This process is also called myelination.

If it weren’t for myelination, one’s brain wouldn’t know if they were touching a hot pan or had stepped on a nail. These signals are transmitted in a fraction of a second and help us keep severe injuries at bay, or tend to them in time. In other words, myelination leads to faster brain connections. Recent studies have established the role of phospholipids, especially sphingomyelin, found in breast milk to positively influence the process of myelination.

Myelination, neuron communication, neuron signal connection

Myelination also leads to the development of the three core executive functions in children – Cognitive Flexibility, Inhibitory Control, and Working Memory. These functions facilitate the onset and development of learning in kids.

Your baby’s brain will be growing rapidly during the first year. The right amount of nourishment will help in the development of these executive functions early on. Kids whose executive functions are well-developed can plan better, remember instructions, are attentive, can multitask, resist temptations or habitual reactions, can adjust to changing demands or priorities, and see things from new perspectives.

If these functions are poorly developed, kids may be less productive, less focused, impulsive, and difficult to get along with. They could also have issues developing social skills, and show poor school readiness. Thus, phospholipids are required to develop balanced executive functions.

If mothers are unable to breastfeed, we recommend consulting a lactation specialist and paediatrician, who can counsel and suggest, and work together to chart alternatives to ensure the babies’ nutrition needs are met.

To summarise, phospholipids, along with the other nutrients found in breast milk, are essential for the development of your little munchkin’s brain. Her nursing phase is one of the most crucial developmental milestones of her babyhood. Therefore, be sure to consult your paediatrician and seek medical guidance on any issues or questions that you may have during this time.

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