Understanding the protective power of breast milk

Dr. Meghan Azad, Child Health Research Institute of Manitoba and University of Manitoba

Dr. Meghan Azad studies the early-life determinants of lifelong health. Her team uses data and biological samples from the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study, a five-year national study following 3,500 families from pregnancy through early childhood.  

Breast milk protects babies from chronic illness

Dr. Azad's current research focuses on the role of maternal nutrition and infant feeding in the development and prevention of chronic disease. Her results suggest that breastfeeding is associated with reduced risks of childhood asthma and obesity.

To understand how this works, Dr. Azad and her team are analyzing breast milk to measure nutrients, immune factors, and hormones to study their impact on infants' growth and development. So far, their research has linked insulin levels in breast milk with infant body composition. Next, the team is analyzing the natural probiotics (live bacteria) and prebiotics (undigestible carbohydrates) found in breast milk to understand how they help babies develop a healthy gut flora, develop a strong immune system, and maintain a healthy weight.  

Overall this research will help optimize nutrition guidelines for mothers and babies, improve infant formulas to benefit babies who cannot be breastfed, and inform related policies to support maternal and child health.

Breastfeeding mothers find support on social media

Dr. Azad is also collaborating with Alessandro Marcon at the University of Alberta Health Law Institute to explore how breastfeeding is portrayed on the social media platform Instagram. Social media plays an increasingly influential role in informing the public about health issues and providing social support and empowerment. Since much of the stigma around breastfeeding hinges on the social acceptability of visibly breastfeeding in public, an image-based website like Instagram provides a useful platform to examine how breastfeeding is portrayed on social media.

The team has searched Instagram using popular hashtags associated with breastfeeding and analyzed more than 4,000 photos and associated content and comments. Many images showed mothers breastfeeding while others featured infants, children, or breastfeeding-related products, including breast pumps and breast milk jewelry. Comments were primarily positive, often expressing pride, enjoyment, and encouragement. Comment 'discussions' sometimes involved users sharing personal stories or tips related to breastfeeding.

The initial results suggest that Instagram provides a positive space for mothers to share their experiences and knowledge about breastfeeding.

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