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A conversation with Mary Wlodek, Professor of Physiology at the University of Melbourne

We interviewed Professor Mary Wlodek whose mission is to try and correct the deficits in breastmilk of women who suffer with complicated pregnancies.

In Professor Wlodek’s long career in animal-based research, it became clear that many rat pups born small, developed cardiovascular and metabolic health problems, which has intergenerational repercussions. Maternal and placental changes that occur in complicated pregnancies in rats meant that a mother’s breast function was altered, and that their offspring are not able to consume the right amount, and best composition, of breast milk. This is important as breastmilk is the optimal ‘personalised nutrition’ for infants and global health agencies recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the infant’s first 6 months of life.

Professor Wlodek’s came across the famous GUSTO birth cohort in Singapore, which has followed 1200 children since birth. The children are now 10 years old. Key researcher leaders, Professor Yap-Seng Chong and Sir Peter Gluckman, collected the breast milk of nursing mothers. This now enables investigators like Professor Wlodek to perform breastmilk analysis.

Wlodek has also established collaborations with Professor Donna Geddes who is the world leader in measuring breastmilk production as well as composition.

In ongoing analyses, she is assessing the breastmilk composition and production of women with complicated pregnancies. Many of the women had a perception that they had low milk supply – and they were correct. Many of the women (50%) with pregnancy complications had low supply which is likely why these women stopped breastfeeding early, well before the infant is 6 months old.

“There is however a time period early on in breastfeeding to fix this: the first two weeks of the baby’s life are critical,” says Wlodek.

Together with her colleagues, Wlodek posed the question: “What is the compositional breastmilk signature that predicts low breastmilk supply and how and when can we correct this?”

If researchers can predict what puts a pregnant woman at risk of having low milk supply in the first two weeks of their baby’s life, even during late pregnancy or at birth, then there is the potential this can be fixed. Women can be screened at key time points and be advised about steps to take to increase milk supply.

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