Medical Q&A

Q: Why is protein important for infants and what role does it play in the child’s development? Does it mean the higher the better?

Protein is the major structural component of all cells in the body — “building blocks” of the body. Proteins also function as enzymes, transport carriers and hormones. Their component amino acids are required for the synthesis of nucleic acids, hormones, vitamins and other important molecules needed for body growth and maintenance of body parts such as bones, muscles, skin.

Dietary protein is necessary to replenish amino acids, which are being degraded and oxidized by the body. Furthermore, in children, dietary protein is needed for new tissue growth and development. The initial growth of a child in the first 6 months of life is rapid. Breast milk or formula milk supplies all the proteins a baby needs until 4-6 months of age. Protein-rich solid foods should supplement breast milk from 6 months of age. Of the 22 known amino acids, our body is able to make 13 of them. Hence, the rest must be obtained from protein-rich foods such as milk, meat, eggs, dairy products and beans.

Babies should get protein every day as per the recommended dietary allowance. The intake of protein should be adequate to provide the needs for maintenance at an appropriate body composition and to permit growth at the normal rate for age, matching energy balance and physical activity. But having said that, it’s still important to moderate the protein intake because too much protein in your baby’s diet during the first 2 years could set him or her up for a lifetime of weight problems and health risks like high blood pressure and heart disease. Breast milk contains the right amount of proteins and nutrients that are essential for an infant’s first 6 months of growth and development but for weaning babies, it’s been suggested that parents give follow-up formulas that have reduced protein content. Nonetheless, it’s best to consult your doctor on how to make healthy adjustments.

Q: What is the difference between intact, partially hydrolysed proteins and extensively hydrolysed proteins?

Extensively hydrolysed proteins contain small cow’s milk protein, which are broken down into peptides. It is the first treatment of choice for formula-fed infants with cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA). However, 10-20% of infants with CMPA may not tolerate extensively-hydrolysed formula as there is still trace amount of contamination with relatively intact cow’s milk proteins and would need an aminoacid based formula.

Partially hydrolysed proteins contain relatively large cow’s milk protein fragments as the protein chains are only partly broken down. They are not suitable for treatment of CMPA, but some studies have suggested that partially hydrolysed milk formulas may be a good way of reducing eczema risk in formula-fed infants who are unable to be completely breastfed and has a family history of allergy. In fact, results from the German Infant Nutritional Intervention Study found that “early nutritional intervention with certain hydrolysed infant formulas in high-risk children has a long-term preventive effect on atopic dermatitis until the age of 6”.1 Intact proteins are whole protein molecules. They are not hypoallergenic and can trigger an allergic reaction in a susceptible child.

1. Preventive effect of hydrolyzed infant formulas persists until age 6 years: Long-term results from the German Infant Nutritional Intervention Study (GINI)

Disclaimer: The advice offered by the featured expert should not be misinterpreted to be a recommendation of any product. This column provides the opinions of specialists and readers should consult their own doctors if they should have further enquiries.

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