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IAEA Launches Database on Breast Milk Intake

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The IAEA’s Database on Human Milk Intake contains a collection of studies using a nuclear technique to accurately measure how much breast milk infants consume. (S. Henriques/IAEA)

The IAEA this week launched a database with datapoints from around 3000 mother and infant pairs, providing the most comprehensive picture to date about breast milk intake around the globe. The IAEA’s Database on Human Milk Intake is a growing global collection of studies, currently representing research from 28 countries across all regions, using the nuclear technique, deuterium oxide dose-to-mother (DTM), to determine how much breast milk breastfed infants consume.

According to the World Health Organization, feeding an infant exclusively with breast milk for the first six months of their life offers benefits for optimal growth, development and health. Currently, much of the available data on breastfeeding practices rely on self-reported data from mothers on what kind of foods and liquids they feed their children. The DTM technique, however, is a non-invasive stable isotope method where the transfer of breast milk from a mother to an infant can be accurately measured (see DTM below) as an objective way of determining breastfeeding practices.

“We developed this database because we wanted to create a unique and growing global collection of DTM data, to enable innovative data analyses and to ensure that previous studies on breast milk intake continue to come to use,” said Pernille Kaestel, a Nutrition Specialist at the IAEA. “This repurposing, where an abundance of data is brought together to generate new value, has the potential to uncover unique insights regarding breastfeeding behavior.”

Typically, individual studies of breast milk intake are not generalizable due to their small sample sizes, with around 30 to 100 participating mother-baby pairs. The nature of the database means that researchers from around the world in the DTM field can continuously contribute to it with their original data, and its global nature enables exploration into whether relationships between breastfeeding practices and other variables, for example socioeconomic status or a mother’s body composition, vary across the globe. The Database launch coincides with the annual World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) – marked from 1 to 7 August – an initiative aimed at protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding across different levels of society. 

“Through combining and harmonizing many studies, the database allows looking at the data from a different perspective and asking new questions,” Kaestel said. “Clusters of data could highlight potential barriers and facilitators to exclusive breastfeeding, and help in identifying research gaps. Ultimately, uncovering which factors affect human milk intake could provide insights as to why exclusive breastfeeding is not the current global norm.”

The database is available to both contributing researchers and those interested in accessing DTM data for secondary data analysis. Its content is quality controlled by a database management group through the IAEA’s online data capture system, IRIS, which filters contributions ensuring that core variables such as breast milk intake, the age and sex of the baby, and the mother’s age and body composition are included, to facilitate the combining and comparing of data. The IAEA also coordinates data usage requests, ensuring that the data is responsibly used for scientific purposes, that applicable data is provided, and that contributors are properly acknowledged and included as co-authors when the data is repurposed.

To contribute to the new Database on Human Milk Intake click here.

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