The need to study human milk as a biological system

Parul Christian, Emily R. Smith, Sun Eun Lee, Ashley J. Vargas, Andrew A. Bremer, Daniel J. Raiten

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Critical advancement is needed in the study of human milk as a biological system that intersects and interacts with myriad internal (maternal biology) and external (diet, environment, infections) factors and its plethora of influences on the developing infant. Human-milk composition and its resulting biological function is more than the sum of its parts. Our failure to fully understand this biology in a large part contributes to why the duration of exclusive breastfeeding remains an unsettled science (if not policy). Our current understanding of human-milk composition and its individual components and their functions fails to fully recognize the importance of the chronobiology and systems biology of human milk in the context of milk synthesis, optimal timing and duration of feeding, and period of lactation. The overly simplistic, but common, approach to analyzing single, mostly nutritive components of human milk is insufficient to understand the contribution of either individual components or the matrix within which they exist to both maternal and child health. There is a need for a shift in the conceptual approach to studying human milk to improve strategies and interventions to support better lactation, breastfeeding, and the full range of infant feeding practices, particularly for women and infants living in undernourished and infectious environments. Recent technological advances have led to a rising movement towards advancing the science of human-milk biology. Herein, we describe the rationale and critical need for unveiling the multifunctionality of the various nutritional, nonnutritional, immune, and biological signaling pathways of the components in human milk that drive system development and maturation, growth, and development in the very early postnatal period of life. We provide a vision and conceptual framework for a research strategy and agenda to change the field of human-milk biology with implications for global policy, innovation, and interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1063-1072
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2021


  • bioactives
  • breastfeeding
  • human milk
  • infant
  • lactation
  • nutrients

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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