Carbohydrates That Are Found in Breast Milk

baby's hand reaching out for bottle
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Carbohydrates are an essential part of the food that you eat. They break down into simple sugars to give you energy and perform important functions in your body. Carbohydrates are also essential for the growth and well-being of newborns and infants.

Your breast milk is specially made for your child. It consists of all the nutrients and health properties that your child needs to grow and develop. 

What Carbohydrates Are in Breast Milk?

There are over 200 different components found in breast milk. Carbohydrates, especially lactose, are one of the major elements that have been identified.

Lactose: Lactose is a type of sugar found only in milk. It is the main carbohydrate that appears in breast milk. Lactose is a type of carbohydrate called a disaccharide. A disaccharide is made up of two simple sugars or monosaccharides. When lactose is broken down, it turns into two simple sugars known as glucose and galactose.

Glucose provides an important source of energy and calories necessary for your newborn's growth and development, and galactose contributes to the healthy development of your baby's central nervous system.

Lactose has been shown to improve a baby's ability to absorb essential minerals including calcium. It is also linked to greater brain development. There are high amounts of lactose in human breast milk, and research indicates that animals with more lactose in their milk have a larger brain size.

Oligosaccharides: Oligosaccharides are a type of carbohydrate that is formed from the union of a few monosaccharides. Oligosaccharides play a significant role in the health of the gastrointestinal tract (the stomach and intestines) of newborns and infants. The job of oligosaccharides in your breast milk is to build up the healthy (probiotic) bacteria located in your baby's intestines. This bacteria is called Lactobacillus bifidus.

L. bifidus can help to prevent infections from developing in your child's GI tract, and it also fights off viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms that can cause illness and disease. Additionally, oligosaccharides have been found to help protect newborns and infants from diarrhea.

There are 130 oligosaccharides in human breast milk. Compared to cow's milk, human milk contains a much greater amount of oligosaccharides (about ten times more). Some infant formulas add artificial oligosaccharides to their products. However, the natural substances found in human milk cannot be copied.

Other Carbohydrates: In addition to lactose and oligosaccharides, there are other types of carbohydrates that can be found in your breast milk. Monosaccharides, polysaccharides (long chains of monosaccharides), fructose, and others are among the compounds that make up the unique and complex composition of human breast milk.

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  • Ballard O, Morrow AL. Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013; 60 (1): 49-74.

  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding: A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition. Mosby. 2011.

  • Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

By Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Honor Society of Nursing.