Human milk microbiome and maternal postnatal psychosocial distress

Pamela D. Browne, Marina Aparicio, Claudio Alba, Christine Hechler, Roseriet Beijers, Juan Miguel Rodríguez, Leonides Fernández*, Carolina de Weerth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Human milk contains many bioactive components, including bacteria, which are transferred to the developing infant through breastfeeding. Milk bacteria appear to, amongst others, originate from the maternal gut. A mother’s postnatal psychosocial distress may alter maternal gut microbiota, which in turn may affect the bacteria present in milk. The aim of this study was to explore whether maternal postnatal psychosocial distress was related to alterations in the relative abundances of specific bacteria and to milk microbial diversity. Healthy mothers (N = 77; N = 51 with complete data) collected breast milk samples at 2, 6, and 12 weeks postpartum and filled in mood questionnaires on experienced stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms at 6 weeks postpartum. A metataxonomic approach (16S rRNA gene sequencing (region V3 and V4) using Illumina MiSeq technology) was used to assess bacterial abundances and diversity. For the group as a whole, an increase in diversity of the milk bacterial community was observed during the first 3 months of breastfeeding (Shannon index). This general increase in diversity appears to be explained by an increase of Lactobacillus and other minor genera, together with a decrease in Staphylococcus. With respect to psychological distress and milk microbial composition, no significant differences in the relative abundance of major bacterial genera were detected between women with high (N = 13) and low (N = 13) psychosocial distress. However, progressive and distinct changes in the content of Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, and Bacteroidetes at the phylum level and Acinetobacter, Flavobacterium, and Lactobacillus at the genera level were observed in milk samples of women with low psychosocial distress. With respect to milk microbial diversity, high maternal psychosocial distress, compared to low maternal psychosocial distress, was related to significantly lower bacterial diversity in milk at 3 months post-delivery. Anxiety, stress, and depressive symptoms separately were unrelated to specific bacterial profiles. The current study suggests a potential relation between maternal psychosocial distress and milk microbiota, providing first evidence of a possible mechanism through which post-partum psychological symptoms may affect infant development and health.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2333
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberOCT
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Bacterial diversity
  • Human milk
  • Maternal postnatal psychosocial distress
  • Milk microbiome
  • Time evolution


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