There’s no other food that offers more optimal nutrition for babies than breast milk. Nevertheless, in some socio-economic groups, the rate of breastfeeding can be as low as 30% — and this needs to change because breastfeeding is one of the single most undervalued things that a mother can do to ensure that her baby is healthy.
Over the past decades, evidence has piled up showing that breastfeeding dramatically reduces child mortality and provides health benefits that extend into adulthood. Some of these benefits not only apply to the infant but also to the mother.
What is breast milk made of?
Breast milk contains over 200 different ingredients, including protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and hormones. The exact composition will vary from mother to mother and even from one feeding to another throughout the day.
During the first days after birth, the breasts produce the first form of milk — a thick, yellowish fluid called colostrum. The golden yellow or orange color is due to the high levels of beta-carotene present in the milk. Occasionally, blood may leak from the milk ducts, causing the colostrum to appear red, pink, or rusty in color. This is typically nothing to worry about; however, it’s best to consult your doctor if you notice bloody discharges from the nipples.
Although a mother’s breast produces only two tablespoons of colostrum in the first 24 hours after birth, it is packed full of nutrients.
Sometimes called “liquid gold”, colostrum is high in protein and low in fat and sugar. Antibodies and white blood cells found in the fluid are essential for protecting the newborn against infection and illness. Colostrum is also a natural laxative, allowing the infant’s bowels to move and expel the meconium — a tar-like poop that collects in the bowels before the baby is born.
The colostrum phase of breast milk lasts until the transitional stage begins between the second and fifth day after the birth of the baby.
Transitional breast milk is a combination of colostrum and mature milk that lasts over the course of a few days or a week.
Mature breast milk is the final phase of breast milk that appears once the baby is about two weeks old. Mature breast milk is comprised of foremilk and hindmilk. Foremilk is thin, watery, and lower in fat and calories, and it is the first milk to flow out of the breast when the mother starts nursing her infant. Hindmilk is thicker, creamier, and higher in fat and calories; this starts flowing as the mother continues to breastfeed, following foremilk.
And, if you ever wondered, breast milk tastes sweet (from the milk sugar lactose) and creamy (due to the high amount of fat it contains). A 2019 study found that the taste of breast milk is influenced by the kinds of food the mother eats during the day.
The benefits of breastfeeding
Ideal nutrition for the baby
According to the WHO, breast milk is the natural first food for babies, providing all the energy and nutrients that an infant requires for the first half-year of life. Breast milk continues to be an important part of an infant’s diet, providing half of the nutritional needs during the second half of the year, and one-third during the second year of life.
Breast milk is ‘personalized nutrition’
No two mothers’ milk is exactly the same. One important reason why this happens is that breast milk is specifically produced for her child. What’s more, as the baby’s stomach grows in the first few days after birth, so does the mother’s breast milk production.
Breastfeeding transmits elements of the mother’s own microbiome and immune responses, providing probiotics to support the growth of beneficial bacteria and kickstarting a baby’s microbiota.
Breastfeeding enhances the baby immune system
The mother transfers her antibodies to her baby through breast milk, and this is particularly true of colostrum, the first milk. For instance, breast milk is high in immunoglobulin A (IgA), which protects the baby from getting sick by forming a protective layer around the nose, throat, and digestive system.
It is due to this principle of antibody transfer that having a mother sick with the flu may actually be a good thing. By breastfeeding, she actually provides all the antibodies a baby needs to fight the flu-causing virus.
In other words, even if a baby gets an illness, or the mother does, the protective effect of her milk tends to amplify. A breastfed baby is thus more likely to recover faster than a formula-fed baby because the mother will produce specific antibodies against whatever infection the baby contacted.
Breastfeeding reduces disease risk in babies
There are numerous studies that have found a link between exclusively breastfeeding and a reduction in a baby’s risk of disease.
For instance, babies fed a diet exclusively consisting of breast milk for their first six months of life were 63% less likely to get serious cold or throat infections.
Studies have linked breastfeeding with a 50% reduction in the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) — the unexplained death, usually during sleep, of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old — after one month a 36% reduction in risk in the first year.
Exclusive breastfeeding for at least 4 months reduces the risk of hospitalization for respiratory tract infections by up to 72%.
The risk of childhood leukemia is reduced by 15-20% in babies who are breastfed for 6 months or longer, numerous studies have shown. The risk of type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes is reduced by 30% and 40%, respectively, for babies breastfed for at least 3 months.
Not only that, when a baby is hit by an infection or disease, breastfeeding has been shown to reduce their severity.
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of disease in mothers, too
Breastfeeding not only protects babies from disease, but also the mother. The more a mother breastfeeds her child, the stronger the protective effect against breast and ovarian cancer, studies have shown.
What’s more, women who breastfeed for at least one year have a 10% to 50% lower risk of high blood pressure, arthritis, high blood fats, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Most recently, researchers have found an association between breastfeeding and a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Breastfeeding promotes healthy brain and cognitive development
Researchers at the Children’s National hospital in Washington, DC have shown that breast milk increases the amount of biochemicals that are important for brain growth and development. Although the study focused on extremely premature babies born at a gestational age of between 23 and 32 weeks, they might apply to healthy babies born at term.
Researchers at Brown University reported in 2013 that breastfeeding alone produces the best results for boosting a baby’s brain growth — even by as much as 20% to 30%.
Another study performed by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital found that for each additional month a baby was breast-fed, verbal ability was higher at age 3, and verbal and nonverbal IQ scores were higher at age 7.
It’s not just the nutritional effects that may contribute to brain development. Breastfeeding mothers tend to spend more time engaging in emotional care than mothers who feed their infants formula; and these differences in mother-infant interactions could explain differences in infant brain development.
Breast milk is essential for premature babies
Doctors recommend that all babies be breastfed for at least the first year of life. This is even more important for premature babies, who, when breastfed, are more likely to come home from the hospital earlier and are more protected against potentially fatal conditions like sepsis and chronic lung disease.
Breastfeeding may help mothers lose weight
Breastfeeding is taxing on the body’s energy balance, requiring about 500 extra calories daily. The hormonal response is also altered during this time, increasing appetite and making mothers more prone to store fat for lactation.
As a result, it’s quite normal for a breastfeeding mother to gain weight. In fact, studies have found that breastfeeding mothers tend to gain more weight than women who don’t breastfeed — but only during the first three months after delivery. After three months of lactation, breastfeeding mothers go through an increase in fat burning that helps them lose weight easier than mothers who don’t breastfeed.
Sleep is sweeter for breastfed babies
Contrary to what you might have heard, formula-fed babies don’t actually sleep more — that’s a myth. Research suggests that both formula-fed and breast-fed babies sleep just as much and are equally as likely to wake up for food during the night.
That being said, the quality of sleep for breastfed babies may be superior as they go back to sleep sooner, a study suggests. This might be due to oxytocin produced in the baby’s body during breastfeeding, which helps him feel sleepy.
Breastfeeding protects mothers from depression
Approximately 15% of women experience feelings of sadness and anxiety after delivering their baby, a condition known as postpartum depression.
Compared to mothers who don’t breastfeed or wean early, breastfeeding mothers are less likely to develop postpartum depression. This might be due to the increased levels of oxytocin produced during breastfeeding, which encourages bonding and promotes anti-anxiety effects.
The benefits of breastfeeding extend into adulthood
A history of breastfeeding during a baby’s early life can predict success later in life. A study performed by British researchers found that 16-year-olds who were breastfed for six months as infants were more likely to get higher grades in their school exam than their colleagues who were formula-fed, even after the results were adjusted to take into account household income and parents’ education.
Another study from Brazil found that people who were breastfed as babies for at least a year were more likely to earn more money by the time they turned 30.
Research also points to the fact that children who were breastfed as babies are less likely to get cancer, tend to have better eyesight, and straighter teeth than those who were fed formula as babies. Breastfeeding also seems to lower the risk of obesity or developing type 1 or type 2 diabetes as an adult.
Breastfeeding best practices
According to the WHO, nearly 2 out of 3 infants are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended 6 months in the world — a rate that has not improved in two decades.
Marketing campaigns promoting breast-milk substitutes continue to undermine the efforts of health workers who try to improve breastfeeding rates and duration.
Some women are unable to breastfeed and, for them, formula is their only option. However, the sheer number of benefits associated with breastfeeding should be enough to convince mothers to try it.
The Royal Women’s Hospital in Victoria, Australia, recommends the following tips for starting and establishing your breastfeeding:
- Feed your baby soon after birth, preferably within the first hour.
- Place the undressed baby directly onto your chest (skin-to-skin).
- Make sure your baby is well attached to the breast
- Before the milk ‘comes in’ many babies may feed up to 12 times in 24 hours.
- Ideally, you and your baby should remain together after the birth so the baby can breastfeed throughout the day and night.
- If your baby is having difficulty attaching to the breast, hand express and give colostrum to them.
- Breastfeeding is a learned skill and you may need help. Don’t be afraid to ask.
- Avoid the use of dummies, teats and infant formula unless a medical professional has advised you to use them.
Bottom line: Breast milk is the most nutritious and healthy kind of food a baby can receive. It’s well worth breastfeeding your child rather than using formula. That being said, this article does not constitute medical advice and you should always consult your doctor about what’s right for both you and your baby.
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