There is no food more wholesome and healthier for a newborn than mother’s milk. It has all the makings of a natural immune booster, given its high content of several protective agents, which include antibodies and an antibacterial mix of proteins such as lactoferrin and lysozyme.
In the first few months when your baby’s immune system is grossly immature and incapable of producing antibodies of its own, the infant relies entirely on the passive immunity derived from the mother’s milk to ward off various illnesses and infections.
Colostrum, or the milk that is produced by the mother in the first 2–4 days after childbirth, is touted to be the most superior source of nourishment for your newborn.
Breast milk, in general, has the ideal composition of vitamins, protein, and fat to cater to all your child’s nutritional needs in the first 6 months of life.
However, the advantages of nursing are not limited to the child only. Breastfeeding is one parenting experience that is exclusive to mothers alone. When the child begins to suck at the mother’s breast or mouth her nipple, the release of certain feel-good hormones in the woman’s body is triggered. Such hormones help her relax and recover faster post-delivery.
Mothers experience a close physical and emotional communion with their babies through nursing. Through this gentle give-and-take, the mother gradually learns to pick up on the baby’s cues, while the baby starts to trust his/her caregiver.
A new mother grows alongside her baby as she learns to adapt to the newly acquired role of a caregiver. Nursing can help greatly in this regard by providing her some much-needed hands-on experience, which not only familiarizes her to the baby’s habits but also teaches her to trust her own instincts.
Choosing whether to breastfeed or bottle-feed your newborn baby is a personal decision. In fact, it is one of the first important decisions that a new mother needs to make.
However, the World Health Organization recommends breast milk as the best thing you can give to your child.
Nursing is essential during the first 6 months of life and has wide-reaching and long-lasting benefits for your baby’s health and development.
According to the AAP, exclusive nursing is essential during the first 6 months of life and has wide-reaching and long-lasting benefits for your baby’s health and development.
Breastfeeding is a win-win for both mother and baby. To maximize the benefits of breastfeeding, start it early. Beginning right after birth, keep your baby exclusively breastfed during the first 6 months before introducing other foods along with a regular dose of breast milk.
How Often Should You Breastfeed?
As a general rule of thumb, lactating mothers are advised to nurse their newborns 8–12 times per day for at least the first month.
You can tell that your baby is adequately breastfed if he or she:
- Is taking well to feeding and gets nursed at least eight in every 24 hours, with some of those feeds occurring during the night.
- Requires multiple nappy changes over the course of the day due to frequent urination. An adequately breastfed baby who wears disposable diapers would require at least five nappy changes in a day, whereas those who wear cloth nappies would require six to eight changes per day.
- Has a minimum of two soft or runny bowel movements a day for approximately the first 6 weeks of life, following which the frequency of bowel movements generally decreases.
- Is meeting all the physical markers of growth in terms of expected weight gain and height.
- Appears to be fully alert, active, and comfortably at ease during his/her waking hours.
The Practical Benefits of Breastfeeding
- The first and foremost advantage that breast milk has over other baby foods is that it is readily available wherever and whenever your baby needs it.
- It is always at the right temperature, clean, and free.
- Breastfeeding is a hassle-free way to feed your child – it saves you the inconvenience of sterilizing and warming baby bottles or preparing formula. You also don’t have to clean up after the feed.
- There is no need to carry a bag full of feeding equipment whenever you are out and about with your baby in tow.
- If your baby wakes in the middle of the night wanting to be fed, there is no need to get out of bed to warm the bottle or prepare the feed. If your baby sleeps in a separate room, you can even ask your partner to bring him/her to you on days when you are particularly beat. Breastfeeding the baby is the simplest and fastest way to provide maximum nutrition to your little one.
- Breastfeeding is also ecologically viable as there is no wastage, nor are there any bottles to wash or formula cans to discard.
- When it comes to your baby’s nourishment, breast milk is perhaps the healthiest choice at the least cost. It costs next to nothing, which cannot be said of most formula feeds available on the market. Lactating women require an extra 400 to 500 calories daily to produce sufficient milk for their babies, a relatively small nutrient cost compared with the exorbitantly priced baby formulas.
Composition of Breast Milk
The composition of human milk keeps on changing, not just throughout the day but the entire course of lactation. It is a dynamic fluid that adapts itself to meet the ever-changing nutrient needs of the baby through different ages. Every infant grows at his/her individual pace, and the composition of the mother’s milk keeps on evolving accordingly to provide for the baby’s specific developmental demands.
Given that there are subtle changes in the flavor of breast milk from feeding to feeding, your baby gets acquainted with different tastes right from the beginning. This makes it easier to introduce a variety of solid foods to the baby’s diet later on.
Breast milk is regarded as the most wholesome source of nutrition for an infant below the age of 6 months. A quick look at its general composition will attest to the legitimacy of this claim:
- Breast milk comprises both saturated and unsaturated fats, which can easily be digested by a baby’s immature digestive tract, perhaps even more easily than those found in an average formula feed. It also contains healthy cholesterol, which is essential for the formation of brain and nerve tissue.
- Breast milk supersedes regular baby formula as an energy source as well, as the energy derived from the former is more efficiently utilized than that from the latter.
- Breast milk also contains a healthy mix of vitamins and minerals in all the right proportions to aid your baby’s growth.
- Immunoglobin A (IgA) is an immune system protective protein that is present in high amounts along with other antibodies in breast milk. IgA forms a protective layer in the baby’s nose, throat, and digestive system to ward off diarrhea, food allergies, and infections.
- Another multifunctional protein found in breast milk, which is a key part of the innate immune system, is lactoferrin. This milk protein binds to iron, thus rendering it unavailable to viruses and bacteria. Moreover, it has antibacterial, antiviral, anti-allergic, and antiparasitic properties to boot.
- Breast milk is loaded with lysozymes and milk leucocytes that destroy viruses and bacteria.
- Breast milk also contains a bifidus factor, a carbohydrate compound that stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria in the baby’s intestines while deterring the growth of disease-causing bacteria.
Colostrum: Your First Milk
Newborn babies barely have any antibodies of their own due to their nascent immune system. During the first few months of their lives, babies depend entirely on the immune-protective components of human milk derived from the mother.
When the mother is exposed to a virus or bacteria, her natural defenses spring into action by producing antibodies to fight off the specific pathogen. The mother’s milk then becomes the channel through which these antibodies are transferred to the suckling infant.
Colostrum, or the first milk that is produced by the mother in the initial 2–4 days after childbirth, contains the highest number of antibodies. This fluid has a thick consistency and is golden yellow in color. It is considered to be the most superlative source of nutrition for a baby as it is enriched with a high dose of protein, has a low sugar content, and is loaded with a number of beneficial compounds.
Given that colostrum packs its nutritional goodness in concentrated form, a teaspoonful at each feed would suffice to help your baby grow.
The health merits of breastmilk supersede that of animal milk and infant formula on several counts, making it the most preferable feeding option for your little one. The chart given below demonstrates the basic differences between the nutritional composition of human milk and its standard alternatives, to establish the superiority of the former.
Here some reasons why breastfeeding is considered advantageous for both the mother and child.
1. Supports Baby’s Growth and Development
Breast milk has the perfect combination of proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates that help your baby grow and develop properly. Plus, the leukocytes, antibodies, enzymes, and hormones present in breast milk make it the ideal food for newborns.
The proteins in breast milk are easily digested and have great infection-protection properties.
The calcium and iron in breast milk, which are needed for healthy bone development, are also more easily absorbed. Plus, breast milk contains healthy fats that are necessary for brain, retina, and nervous system development.
Lactose, the primary carbohydrate found in breast milk, improves the intestinal absorption of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals in infants.
2. Boosts Immune System
Food allergies, eczema, and asthma are less common in babies who are breastfed for at least 4 months. This is mainly due to the colostrum consumed by the baby.
Colostrum is a low-fat, high-protein breast milk that has a positive influence on your newborn’s immune responses and lymphoid tissue. This makes babies more resilient to germs, bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
Additionally, breastfeeding increases the benefits of vaccination.
A study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that breastfeeding helps protect against future development of allergic diseases, but possibly less so in countries with untoward maternal fat intake.
Breastfeeding provides immune protection and helps prevent various diseases in the perinatal period.
3. Greater IQ
It has been found that breastfed babies may have the advantage of a higher IQ over formula-fed babies.
The cognitive benefits are linked to the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in breast milk, specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid. Specific proteins in breast milk also promote brain development.
A study published in the Journal on Developmental Disabilities reports that feeding with breast milk over infant formula provides the infant with a measurable advantage on some, but not all, scales of cognitive development.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2008 reports that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding improves children’s cognitive development.
Another 2013 study published in NeuroImage reports that infant breastfeeding is linked to improved developmental growth in late-maturing white matter association regions. Moreover, extended breastfeeding duration is associated with improved white matter structure and cognitive performance.
4. Lowers SIDS Risk
Nursing your baby for at least 6 months may help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the sudden death of an infant less than 1 year old for which a cause cannot be found at autopsy.
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of SIDS by more than 50 percent at all ages throughout infancy. It is strongly recommended that breastfeeding should be done throughout the first 6 months of the baby’s life to reduce SIDS risk.
Breastfed infants awaken more easily from sleep, which in turn protects against SIDS. In addition, breastfeeding aids in building the immune system that protects an infant from infections.
Along with breastfeeding, make sure to keep the crib or bassinet completely clutter-free by clearing away any toys and extra clothes.
5. Promotes a Healthy Digestive System
Breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from diarrhea and upset stomach. The right balance of nutrients in breast milk helps babies develop a healthy digestive system. In particular, the fat- and antibody-rich colostrum helps babies adapt to the needs as they grow.
Plus, the protein in breast milk is more easily and completely digested by babies. Breast milk also ensures a proper balance of good bacteria in the infant’s gut.
A 2014 study published in the International Breastfeeding Journal reports that early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding protects against infant diarrhea and acute respiratory infections.
Plus, gastroesophageal reflux is less severe in breastfed infants than those who are formula fed. This is because human milk is emptied faster from the stomach than milk formula.
6. Aids Mom’s Weight Loss
Breastfeeding is associated with lower postpartum weight retention.
To nurse a baby, a mother needs an extra 400 to 500 calories daily to produce sufficient breast milk. At the same time, nursing burns up to 500 calories a day.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that women who gain a reasonable amount of weight during pregnancy and breastfeed exclusively are most likely to lose the extra pounds 6 months after delivery.
To fit into your skinny jeans faster, start breastfeeding your baby now.
7. Supports Oral Health
Breastfeeding helps the jawbone and muscles of the upper airway develop, which is important for better alignment of the oral cavity in babies.
Exclusive breastfeeding for 4–5 months reduces the risk in babies of suffering from malocclusion, which is the misalignment of the teeth and dental arches. It also reduces the risk of baby bottle tooth decay.
Breastfeeding for more than 9 months is the most effective way to prevent malocclusion or posterior crossbite.
No matter what, it is important for mothers to regularly monitor whether their child’s baby teeth, and later permanent teeth, are coming in at the right time.
8. Reduces Diabetes Risk
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of diabetes in both the nursing mother and her infant. Diabetes can lead to serious complications, such as cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney damage, eye damage, foot damage, and skin problems.
Encouraging and supporting breastfeeding for all mothers and babies may have a substantial impact on both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
Mothers without diabetes even reduce their risk of diabetes later in life, whereas mothers with diabetes can reduce their requirement for insulin and improve glycemic control. For babies, breastfeeding appears to lower the risk of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
A 2015 study published in Acta Paediatrica concludes that breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes in mothers.
9. Reduces Cancer Risk
Breastfeeding is encouraged to reduce the risk of cancer in children and in nursing mothers.
Earlier, breastfeeding was inversely associated with pediatric cancer, and the protection increased with the duration of full breastfeeding.
High levels of the cancer-fighting TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) in human milk, which provides better protection against illnesses such as lymphoblastic leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease.
A 2015 study published in Acta Paediatrica found that breastfeeding for more than 12 months was associated with a reduced risk for mothers of developing breast and ovarian carcinoma by 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively.
- As your baby depends on your breast milk for healthy nutrients, it encourages you to make healthier food choices.
- Breastfeeding helps a mother’s body manage postpartum hormones.
- Exclusive breastfeeding can cause amenorrhea, or absence of period after childbirth, lasting at least twice as long as mothers who choose to bottle feed.
- Nursing also helps babies see the world in friendlier terms as it boosts the production of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.
- Breastfeeding puts mothers at a lower risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis than those who do not.
- Breastfeeding also creates a special time that allows the mother and baby to bond emotionally.
- Breast milk is always safe, fresh, and exactly the right temperature, making nighttime feedings a lot easier and convenient.
- Breastfeeding is also good for the environment, as there are no bottles to wash or formula cans to throw away.
- As there is no need to buy and measure formula, sterilize nipples, or warm bottles, breastfeeding saves you time and money.
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- Cacho NT, Lawrence RM. Innate Immunity and Breast Milk. Frontiers in immunology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447027/. Published May 29, 2017.
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- The physiological basis of breastfeeding. Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK148970/.
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- Gouveri E, Papanas N, Hatzitolios AI, Maltezos E. Breastfeeding and diabetes. Current diabetes reviews. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21348815. Published March 2011.
- Horta BL, Mola CLde, Victora CG. Long‐term consequences of breastfeeding on cholesterol, obesity, systolic blood pressure and type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Acta Paediatrica. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/apa.13133. Published November 4, 2015.
- Promoting proper feeding for infants and young children. https://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/infantfeeding/en/. Published 2017.
- Breastfeeding counselling: a training course. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/documents/who_cdr_93_3/en/. Published October 21, 2014.