We’ve been told it’s the most nutritious fluid on Earth. Some even refer to it as “liquid gold.” But what is it about breast milk that makes it so unique and special? We take a deeper look.
The first 1000 days of your baby’s life, from the first day of your pregnancy up to two years of life, represent a critical period of growth and development. It gives us parents an opportunity to provide an environment that will help support life-long health. This includes the nutrition a baby receives during this period, which can have a resounding impact. The most complete form of nutrition for infants – breast milk – offers a range of benefits for health, growth, immunity, and development. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for at least six months (and even up to two years and beyond) because of the long-lasting benefits of breastfeeding for both you and your baby. Many studies, whether focusing on the properties of the milk itself or its effects on babies’ short and long-term health, confirm the significance of these recommendations.
Breast not only is the “best” for both you and baby, but it’s also the norm – it’s how our babies have been fed since the beginning of time. One of the most important decisions you can make during these first 1000 days of your baby’s life is to choose to breastfeed your baby.
What exactly is in breastmilk? It’s a unique nutritional source that is easy to digest and provides the perfect balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and nutrients to promote the growth and development of your baby.
In the first few days after giving birth, the body produces a special kind of breastmilk known as “colostrum.” Thick and yellowish in colour, colostrum is very nutritious and is rich in antibodies that help baby fight off infections and bacteria. It also helps baby’s digestive tract develop, helping it prepare to digest breast milk. After a few days, mom’s breast milk comes through, which is runnier than colostrum, and whiter in colour.
Breastmilk contains hundreds of invaluable substances in human milk – probably more that have yet to be identified – including:
- Antibodies and white blood cells
- Probiotics (as many as 600 different species!)
- Growth factors
- Antibacterial properties
- Oligosaccharides (special carbohydrates that encourage the growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive system)
- Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (important for the development of their brain, eyes and nervous system)
- Cytokines (special proteins involved in cell communication and immune system formation) and many, many more.
Breastfeeding not only provides your baby with tailored nutrition, but it’s available on demand, day or night, and it’s free of charge! The health benefits go well beyond convenience and cost, however, and will have a far-reaching impact on both you and your baby long after the breastfeeding journey has ended.
Health benefits of breastfeeding for your baby
Scientific research suggests a substantial number of potential health benefits from breastfeeding.
These benefits include:
Decreased rates of sudden infant death syndrome in the first year of life (an effect that becomes even stronger when breastfeeding is exclusive).
Lower post neonatal infant mortality rates (a reduction of approximately 21% in the U.S.).
Decreased risk of baby developing eczema, asthma, and food allergies later in life.
Slightly enhanced performance on tests of cognitive development.
Lower incidence of infectious diseases, such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, ear infections, respiratory tract illness bacterial meningitis, urinary tract infection, bacteraemia, necrotizing enterocolitis, and late onset sepsis in preterm infants.
Improved dental health with less risk of tooth decay.
Reduction of the risk of obesity later in life when exclusively breastfed for at least 4 months.
Decreased rates of type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus, lymphoma, leukaemia and Hodgkin disease in older children and adults.
And if this wasn’t enough, breastfeeding also exposes your baby – through the milk you’re producing – to the varying tastes and flavour profiles of the foods you eat, which can influence food acceptance and preferences when they themselves begin to eat food, and throughout their lifetime as well.
Are there any circumstances in which breast milk can be harmful to your baby?
Yes, there are a few circumstances in which breast milk may pose a danger to a baby, but these are directly related to the health of the mother. If a mother is taking prescription medication, for example, the medication may affect the baby via the mom’s breast milk. Illegal drugs are extremely harmful to babies, and if a mom is taking them, they can be transmitted to baby via breast milk too. Certain health conditions in the mother may also make her breast milk unsuitable for her baby. These include: HIV / AIDS, active tuberculosis, certain cancers and chemotherapy. Regular colds, flus or minor health problems should not pose any risks. If you are taking medication, or have any serious health conditions, chat to your doctor about the possibility of breastfeeding to ensure the safety of your baby.
Health benefits of breastfeeding for you
Your baby isn’t the only one who benefits from breastfeeding. The health benefits for the mama (you!) are also significant and include:
A unique and powerful physical and emotional connection between you and your baby – breastfeeding is the one parenting behaviour only the mother can do.
A non-verbal communication and bond with your baby that only grows to support an ever more intimate and effortless mutual exchange, especially if you stay present while nursing with lots of touching, talking, singing, and eye contact.
Stimulation of your body to produce antibodies in your milk which in turn helps your baby stay well or recover faster if sick.
Help with your return to your pre-pregnancy weight by increasing your energy requirements, promoting the mobilization of fat stores, and quickens your uterus to contract to its pre-pregnancy size.
Decreased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
Possibly decreased risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis in the post-menopausal period.
Delay the return of your menstrual cycle, which will help maintain your iron status and may act as a form of contraception to decrease your chances of getting pregnant again (MAY being the key word – Irish twins isn’t a made up phenomenon!).
Breastfeeding can also just make life easier for you and for the environment, too. At night, putting a baby to your breast is much simpler and faster than getting up to prepare or warm a bottle of formula. It’s wonderful, too, to be able to pick up the baby and go out – whether around town or on longer trips – without having to carry a bag full of feeding equipment. Not to mention you’re sparing the environment the creation and recycling or landfilling of so much formula packaging all while sparing your bank account!
I want to breastfeed – where do I start?
Educate yourself on the benefits of breastfeeding.
If you’re pregnant, it’s never too early to learn about breastfeeding to help you make informed decisions about how you’d like to feed your baby.
Plan ahead for breastfeeding success.
Before giving birth, familiarize yourself with breastfeeding, latching and what to expect in the first few weeks of nursing. You’ll be swept up in lots of excitement when your baby is born, so having some initial familiarity with these concepts will help with the transition.
Know where to find breastfeeding support .
Familiarize yourself with your hospital or birth centre’s onsite breastfeeding support as well as support you can access once you’re back home. Support can include lactation counsellors or consultants and breastfeeding hotlines.
Identify a local lactation consultant in advance of the birth.
Breastfeeding is a new skill for both you and your baby, whether it’s your first or your fourth! While you’ll learn and find your way together, you still may need or simply want additional support, or a home visit. It’s best to locate these helpful individuals in advance!
Aim to breastfeed exclusively (breast milk only) until your baby is about six months old. At approximately six months, you can introduce solid foods as a complementary feeding method while continuing to breastfeed as the benefits continue well through the first and second years.
If you are unable or choose not to breastfeed, speak to your midwife, doctor or healthcare professional who can help guide and support you in making the best feeding plan for you and your family.
Keep in mind the hierarchy of infant feeding choices for the term baby according to the American Academy of Paediatrics:
- mother’s own milk expressed and given to her child in some other way;
- milk from Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) or state licensed milk bank;
- cow-based milk formula;
- soy-based formula.
We know that there are many instances and situations in which mothers cannot breastfeed, and we are in no way suggesting that their babies will be worse off. Rather, the message we are trying to bring across is that, if you are able to breastfeed, we encourage you to do so for as long as possible, as the benefits are endless.