Human milk as “chrononutrition”: implications for child health and development

Abstract

Human biology follows recurring daily rhythms that are governed by circadian cues in the environment. Here we show that human milk is a powerful form of “chrononutrition,” formulated to communicate time-of-day information to infants. However, 85% of breastfed infants in the US consume some milk that does not come directly from the breast but is pumped and stored in advance of feeding. Expressed milk is not necessarily circadian-matched (e.g., an infant might drink breastmilk pumped in the evening on the following morning). Ingesting mistimed milk may disrupt infants’ developing circadian rhythms, potentially contributing to sleep problems and decreased physiological attunement with their mothers and environments. Dysregulated circadian biology may compromise infant health and development. Despite wide-ranging public health implications, the timing of milk delivery has received little empirical study, and no major pediatric or public health organization has issued recommendations regarding the circadian-matching of milk. However, potential adverse developmental and health consequences could be ameliorated by simple, low-cost interventions to label and circadian-match stored milk. The current paper reviews evidence for human milk as chrononutrition and makes recommendations for future research, practice, and policy.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (MH-96889).

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J.H.-H. and L.G. conceptualized the research concept and wrote the initial draft of the manuscript. D.S., C.S., and C.B. helped revise the article critically for important intellectual content. All authors gave their final approval of this paper for publication.

Correspondence to Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook.

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