Advice Column, Parenting, Pregnancy & Baby

Only one-third of infants under six months are exclusively breastfed in South Africa

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Breast milk is the best food for babies. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life, and continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for up to two years of age.

Key findings in the most recent World Health Organisation report and South Africa Demographic and Health Survey showed that South Africa has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with only 32% of women breastfeeding infants under the age of six months. 

While exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life has steadily increased in South Africa over the past decade, the country still has a long way to reach global targets, according to Health Minister Dr Zwelini Mkhize, who addressed the media and public during World Breastfeeding Awareness Week in 2019.

Why not all mothers breastfeed 

There are many contributing factors to these statistics. While breastfeeding is beneficial for both mothers and babies, many women in South Africa cannot, should not, or choose not to breastfeed. The reasons might include the following factors: 

  • The mother needs to take certain medication that is incompatible with breastfeeding.
  • The mother has an infectious disease.
  • The mother needs to undergo a medical treatment that isn’t safe while she’s breastfeeding. 
  • The baby is unable to breastfeed (galactosemia).
  • The mother is dependent on illegal drugs.
  • True low breast milk supply, which is usually the result of an underlying condition such as polycystic ovary syndrome, hypothyroidism, breast surgery, radiation treatment or insufficient glandular tissue.
  • The mother needs to return to work.

Although breastfeeding provides much more than just nutrition, for women who experience any of the above and cannot breastfeed exclusively, and where donor breast milk is not feasible, infant milk formula is considered an effective alternative. (A registered healthcare professional should always be consulted.) 

Why we are what we eat (and drink)

All humans have a microbiome, which is a population of trillions of microorganisms, also called microbiota or microbes², bustling inside and outside our bodies. Each person has an entirely unique network of microbiota determined by their DNA. We’re first exposed to microorganisms when we’re babies, during delivery in the birth canal and through breast milk. 

In a healthy person, these microbiota live peacefully in large numbers in the small and large intestines (gut), and throughout the body.3 Microbes in our gut influence much more than just digestion: good intestinal bacteria play a crucial role in maintaining our immune systems and fighting off infections and disease.4 The composition of these microbes is shaped mainly by our diet.

How goat milk compares with human milk 

Breast milk is the best food for babies, but where breastfeeding is not possible, research shows that goat milk measures up well. 

The Global Outlook & Forecast 2019–2024 on Goat Milk Powder by Arizton reported that, when comparing nutritional content between human breast milk, powdered goat milk and powdered cow milk, the goat milk is the best alternative to human breast milk.

Breast milk contains a fatty acid called ß-palmitate, high levels of which can positively influence gut health, growth and comfort of infants. ß-palmitate is also found in high levels in goat milk-based formula.

Human milk also contains an abundant supply and diverse array of oligosaccharides, which have significantly beneficial prebiotic properties for breastfed infants. (Prebiotics help to stimulate, grow and maintain beneficial gut bacteria.5) Oligosaccharides help to establish and maintain healthy intestines, support the immune system and protect against gastrointestinal infections.6 

The milk of goats contains the highest amount of oligosaccharides amongst all of the domestic animals. Studies continue to show that oligosaccharides present in goat milk-based infant formula have strong prebiotic and anti-infection properties and may help protect against gastrointestinal infections to the infant7, and enhance immune function.8

Most types of milk contain both A1-type β-casein protein and A2-type β-casein protein. There is evidence that type A1 of β-casein may be more likely to cause digestive issues, inflammatory or allergic reactions, resulting in diarrhoea and abdominal cramping among infants. 

Goat milk mostly contains type A2 β-casein, and therefore tends to be more easily digested by infants. It is the relatively low amount of A1 β-casein protein in goats’ milk that helps to form the softer curd in the stomach and makes it more digestible. Furthermore, while the fat content of goat milk is similar to that of cow milk, the fat globules are up to 75% smaller, and this may make them easier to digest. 9,10

For these reasons, goat milk powder solutions are growing in popularity among consumers all over the world. 

World Breastfeeding Week is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced by mothers when it comes to feeding their babies. Many mothers feel judged and attacked on the subject of breastfeeding, from undergoing scrutiny when breastfeeding in public, to being made to feel ‘less than’ if they can’t or don’t breastfeed. It is vital to bring awareness of this cause to the public, educate about the contributing factors for why some women can’t breastfeed, and provide information on the best milk alternatives.

For more information on the nutritional and lifestyle benefits of goat milk powder or to connect with nutritional consultant Megan Pentz-Kluyts RD (SA), send an email to susan@hatchco.co.za.  

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