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Human milk oligosaccharides 101: Everything you need to know about HMOs



Brought to you by the Kiindred Editors. Our team are committed to researching and writing on all the things we know you will want to know about, at each stage of your pregnancy and parenthood journey.
Created on Oct 29, 2023 · 4 mins read
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As a new parent, it can often feel like you’re learning a whole new language, or like you’re cramming for the biggest test of your life. From colostrum to meconium, to mastitis and colic… Some of these terms can feel like they are straight up out of your Year 10 science textbook. Or simply gibberish.

That is at least how I felt when I first heard the term: Human Milk Oligosaccharides.

But like colostrum, meconium and mastitis, Human Milk Oligosaccharides are a really important thing to know about as a parent. Hard to say, but good to know. Plus, it definitely sounds more complicated than it is. So, put on your lab coat and strap in – because, in partnership with Biostime Supplements, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about Human Milk Oligosaccharides or HMOs, if you will!

HMO-huh? What is an HMO? 

To put it simply – HMOs are a unique type of prebiotic found naturally in breastmilk. Actually, they are the third-largest solid component of breastmilk after fat and lactose, so they must be important right?

Yep, these HMOs have been found to feed good bacteria in the gut of babies and when you consider that 70% of the immune system exists in the gut, you can begin to see why HMOs are such a big deal.

Since HMOs are prebiotics, they help promote good bacteria, which in turn supports the digestion and gut barrier in your little one, which leads to a stronger immune system. Whilst HMOs have plenty of benefits, they actually aren’t digested by our little ones, and therefore don’t have any nutritional value. Rather, they are a source of protection by supporting the immune system to defend against viral and bacterial pathogens.

Interestingly – HMOs differ from mother to mother, based on their genetics as well as their stage in lactation, with more than 150 different types of HMOs being identified. Plus HMOs are present in a concentration 10-100x higher in humans than in other animal milk…Could mothers get any more magical?

What if I don’t breastfeed? 

We know that breastfeeding comes with some amazing benefits – like HMOs! – but we also know that for some of us it is impossible or impractical. So that’s why it’s incredible to know that scientific technology has developed HMOs that are structurally identical to the HMOs in breast milk. And so the more that scientists uncover what makes breast milk just so amazing for babies – and the role things like HMOs play – the more advanced products become with key components in breastmilk.

Immune systems and HMOs 

Most of us have a passing knowledge of immune systems – they defend against sickness right? But when do they develop and start working for our little ones?

In the third trimester, antibodies are actually passed from the mother to her baby through the placenta. This gives babies some level of protection when they are first born, but their immune system is still immature.

After birth, antibodies are also passed to the baby through colostrum found in breastmilk. And as they now are out of the safety of the womb and into the real world – their immune system will continue to develop as they come into contact with germs. So don’t be surprised if they seem to be catching every cold or illness under the sun in those first 5 years.

As their immune system is still developing, on average babies, toddlers and preschoolers get about 10 viral infections a year. From primary school to the beginning of high school, they will also get more illnesses a year than the average adult, but it will lessen as they get older.

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So where do HMOs come in?

HMOs have been shown to help the growth of good bacteria in the gut, which in turn, supports the development of a strong and healthy immune system in infants. Further, the growth of this good bacteria helps prevent viral and bacterial pathogens (aka illness!) from establishing in the gut and causing infection. Due to this, early studies have shown that HMOs have health-promoting properties in early life.

With that, your science lesson is over (phew!) and hopefully, you’ve learned some helpful info (or just cool facts) about HMOs. At the end of the day, we just want to do anything we can to help our little ones – and it is amazing to think about all the things like HMOs which are supporting our babies behind the scenes without most of us even knowing!

This is a paid partnership between Kiindred x Biostime Supplements.


(1)Bode L. Nutrition Reviews 2009. Vol. 67(Suppl. 2):S183–S191

(2)Furness, J. B., Kunze, W. A., & Clerc, N. (1999). II. The intestine as a sensory organ: neural, endocrine, and immune responses. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 277(5), G922-G928.

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