Breastmilk is a Complete Food
Used since, well, the beginning of time, breastmilk is nature's perfect food—and it changes as the infant grows. Starting between 16 and 22 weeks of pregnancy, a woman's body begins to produce colostrum. This thick, gold-colored liquid is high in carbohydrates and protein, so it digests quickly and easily. It's also packed with sugars and antibodies, which help the baby begin to build a healthy immune system and gut bacteria. After the baby is born, the colostrum is enough food for the baby until the mature breastmilk begins to come in, typically between 2 and 5 days after giving birth.
Once the mature breastmilk comes in, the baby's food now contains 3 to 5 percent fat, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamins A, C and E, fatty acids, DHA and AA, lactose, microbes and more than 200 complex chains of sugars. In fact, breastmilk is so complex, experts believe it's the most dynamic and advanced milk of all mammals.
Benefits for the Baby
As we've mentioned, colostrum and mature breastmilk kick off immunity and a healthy gut (think of it as nature's vaccine!). Breastfed babies have fewer ear, respiratory, stomach and intestinal infections. Incredibly, breastmilk can actively fight off infection. If a baby is exposed to a new germ, this is transferred via saliva to the mother's body while nursing. The mother's body then produces specific antibodies in response, which are then sent back to the baby via breastmilk. The human body is simply amazing.
In January of 2016, the medical journal The Lancet published the largest and most detailed analysis of breastfeeding to date. Reviewing over 1,300 studies, researchers concluded that bringing breastfeeding to a "near universal level" could save nearly one million children's lives a year, preventing 13 percent of all deaths of children under five. The report states the many benefits, such as:
- Respiratory infections could be cut down by 1/3 in low- and middle-income countries
- Diarrheal episodes could be more than halved in low- and middle-income countries
- Risk of sudden infant death could go down by more than 1/3 in high-income countries (SIDS is rare in other parts of the world)
The report also lists other benefits, such as higher levels of intelligence in children who were breastfed for longer, as well as many benefits for the mother.
Benefits for the Mama
Just like for baby, there are many benefits for the mother. To start, breastfeeding releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps to reduce postpartum bleeding and helps to return the uterus to its regular size. Studies have shown that breastfeeding can reduce the risk of endometrial, ovarian and breast cancers, as well as decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. According the aforementioned report in The Lancet, worldwide breastfeeding could prevent 20,000 deaths from breast cancer each year.
The social norms are shifting in our country and around the world as education continues to spread on the benefits of breastfeeding for both the baby and the mother. For support and more information, reach out to support organizations like La Leche League at www.llli.org.