Any self-respecting pediatric nutritionist will tell you that breast milk is a key ingredient to having a healthy baby. While some may want to ignore this advice most just do not understand the “why” behind the advice. Understanding breast milk itself can go a long way in improving breastfeeding patterns all around the world.
With the introduction of baby formula and other toddler foods most mothers assume that this is a perfect replacement to breast milk. The truth is that there is nothing quite like breast milk. From how it is made to how it affects the baby’s development, breast milk is quite the a fascinating toddler’s food. All mothers need to understand breast milk both for their well being and that of their kids.
1. How breast milk is made in the breasts
To produce breast milk, mothers melt their own body fat. Are you with me? We literally dissolve parts of ourselves, starting with gluteal-femoral fat, aka our butts, and turn it into liquid to feed our babies.
Breast milk is much more than food: it’s potent medicine and, simultaneously, a powerful medium of communication between mothers and their babies. It’s astonishing. It should be—the recipe for mother’s milk is one that female bodies have been developing for 300 million years.
2. Some kids need it more than others.
Many new mothers have wondered exactly how long it is that they should breast feed and the simple answer to that is:
Breast-feeding leads to better overall health outcomes for children, which is why the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Paediatrics recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for a minimum of six months.
Those outcomes, though, are relative: A premature infant in the neonatal intensive-care unit or a baby growing up in a rural African village with a high rate of infectious disease and no access to clean water will benefit significantly more from breast milk over artificial milk, called formula, than a healthy, full-term baby born in a modern American hospital.
3. Breast milk bolsters your kid’s IQ.
Does it really lead to better health and higher intelligence quotient for your kids?
We’re also told that breast-feeding leads to babies with higher IQs and lower rates of childhood obesity than their formula-fed counterparts. I understand why people find this appealing, but I don’t plan to raise my daughter to understand intelligence in terms of a single test score, or to measure health and beauty by body mass index.
Surprisingly more and more mothers are breastfeeding just because of these two facts. While no one would blame them for it, mothers should be more objective about breastfeeding than they currently are.
More compelling to me are the straightforward facts about breast milk: It contains all the vitamins and nutrients a baby needs in the first six months of life (breast-fed babies don’t even need to drink water, milk provides all the necessary hydration), and it has many germ- and disease-fighting substances that help protect a baby from illness. Oh, also: The nutritional and immunological components of breast milk change every day, according to the specific, individual needs of a baby. Yes, that’s right, and I will explain how it works in a minute. Not nearly enough information is provided by doctors, lactation counselors, or the internet about this mind-blowing characteristic of milk.
This lack of information is partially why a lot of the mothers today are so clueless about breast milk. More needs to be done to get all this information out there for all mothers to consume and hopefully put to good use.
Vital nutrients are contained in breast milk.
What exactly goes into breast milk that makes it so nutritious?
Very little is understood about the composition of breast milk by the producer of the milk. Sure scientists and professionals have all the facts. These facts do not really help the mother or the baby if the mother is not aware of them. You can’t really use information you don’t have. This is probably why some women think of breast milk and baby formula as being equal. This could not be further from the truth. While manufacturers try to mimic breast milk, they are just not there yet.
The nutritional value of breast milk has been perfected over millions of years (if you believe in evolution) to meet baby’s every need. To expect science to replicate this in a few years is extremely difficult.
Nutritionally, breast milk is a complete and perfect food, an ideal combination of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, and nutrients. Colostrum, the thick golden liquid that first comes out of a woman’s breasts after giving birth (or sometimes weeks before, as many freaked-out moms-to-be will tell you) is engineered to be low in fat but high in carbohydrates and protein, making it quickly and easily digestible to newborns in urgent need of its contents. (It also has a laxative effect that helps a baby pass its momentous first poop, a terrifying black tar-like substance called meconium.)
Mature breast milk, which typically comes in a few days after a woman has given birth, is 3 to 5 percent fat and holds an impressive list of minerals and vitamins including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamins A, C, and E. Long chain fatty acids like DHA (an omega-3) and AA (an omega-6)—both critical to brain and nervous-system development—also abundant in mother’s milk.
Breast milk is very much alive.
This may sound far fetched but it does have some tiny and interesting microbes in it.
Speaking of microbes, there are a ton of them in breast milk. Human milk isn’t sterile—it’s very much alive, filled with good bacteria, much like yogurt and naturally fermented pickles and kefir, that keep our digestive systems functioning properly. Mother’s milk contains not only the bacteria necessary to help a baby break down food, but the food for the bacteria themselves to thrive. A breast feeding mother isn’t keeping one organism alive—but actually hundreds of thousands of them.
What it says about the mother
You may be surprised to find out that breast milk actually depends on the mother and not all milk will be the same. This goes down to the flavor and texture. What do the experts say?
Like a glass of red wine, breast milk has a straightforward color and appearance, but it possesses subtleties in flavor that reflect its terroir—the mother’s body. And it turns out that like any great dish of food, mother’s milk holds a variety of aromas, flavors, and textures.
The flavors of breast milk are as dynamic as a mother’s diet. In the 1970s, researchers at the University of Manitoba obtained samples of breast milk from lactating women and had them evaluated by a trained panel for taste, quality of sweetness, and texture. There were variations across all samples in all categories, most notably that the milk of a woman who had recently eaten spicy food was described by tasters as being “hot” and “peppery.”
It is medicinal.
When you tell most new moms that their breast milk can be of medicinal value to their kids, they will often give you a blank stare. Some may even tell you straight to your face, “look I get you are trying to prove that it is for the good of the kid but I think you are getting carried away here.” But is it really getting carried away or can breast milk really cure and if so how exactly does this happen?
Researchers have found that when a baby suckles at its mother’s breast, a vacuum is created. Within that vacuum, the infant’s saliva is sucked back into the mother’s nipple, where receptors in her mammary gland read its signals. This backwash contains information about the baby’s immune status. Everything scientists know about physiology indicates that backwash is one of the ways that breast milk adjusts its immunological composition. If the mammary gland receptors detect the presence of pathogens, they compel the mother’s body to produce antibodies to fight it, and those antibodies travel through breast milk back into the baby’s body, where they target the infection.
Breastfeeding is a huge bonus for your child. If you are able to make it happen, both you and baby can reap the benefits.
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