There’s probably no sight more heartwarming or precious than a baby feeding from its mom (in the wild, on the farm and of course, us). It is perhaps the most bonding moment for mother and baby. Newborn mammals are incapable of obtaining food and nourishment on their own and need to rely upon the mother’s body to produce the nutrient-rich milk for healthy sustenance and growth.
And have things changed dramatically. In the 1950s and mid-1960s, the act of breastfeeding was considered unseemly and for the lower classes. Now, the WHO recommends that mothers breastfeed their infants for the first six months to encourage and provide optimal infant health and development.
Benefits of Breastfeeding
There are many benefits for choosing to breastfeed over formula. According to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), scaling up breastfeeding (over formula) can prevent 823,000 infant deaths and $302 billion in economic losses annually.
Among numerous benefits for baby, mom and the planet, WABA points to the following:
- Breastfeeding significantly improves the development and health as well as survival ability of infants and children. It also contributes to improved health and well-being of moms.
- Breastfeeding plus nutritious complementary feeding contribute favorably to the child’s readiness to learn, as this significantly contributes to mental and cognitive development, promoting better ability to learn.
- Exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond provide high-quality nutrients and adequate energy, and can help prevent undernutrition and obesity.
- Breastfeeding on demand provides all the water a baby needs, even in hot weather. Conversely, formula feeding necessitates access to clean water and sanitation as well as hygiene.
- Breastfeeding provides a healthy, viable, non-polluting, non-resource intensive, sustainable and natural source of nutrition and sustenance.
- Breastfeeding entails less waste compared to formula feeding. Industrial formula production and distribution lead to waste that pollutes bodies of water.
The American Pregnancy Association (APA) lists advantages of breastfeeding versus bottle feeding. The advantages of feeding your baby straight from yourself include providing baby with the perfect balance and high amounts of nutrients, along with necessary immunoglobulins that provide passive immunity. Mother’s milk is also always the correct temperature. Also, the physiological process of breastfeeding releases oxytocin, the warm bonding-feeling hormone in mom. The Association also emphasizes that even a small amount of mother’s milk benefits baby’s health and development within his or her first six months.
And, the APA notes, babies who consume healthy mother’s milk are at a reduced risk of ear and upper respiratory infections, asthma, obesity and diabetes type 2.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states: “Breastfeeding is an investment in health, not just a lifestyle decision.” Further, Dr. Ruth Petersen, director of CDC’s division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, asserts: “Breastfeeding provides unmatched health benefits for babies and mothers. It is the clinical gold standard for infant feeding and nutrition, with breast milk uniquely tailored to meet the health needs of a growing baby.”
Breastfeeding also helps lower risk of obesity for children. According to one study, babies that are breastfed exclusively (no formula) gain less weight in their first year than those given conventional formula. Additionally, a meta-analysis of 25 studies totaling 226,508 participants concluded that breastfeeding is a significant protective factor against childhood obesity.
Breastfeeding can also increase intelligence and healthy brain development. According to one meta-analysis of individuals who were breastfed as infants had IQ scores averaging two to three points higher than those who were not. Another study followed newborns in 1982 and 30 years later to see how breastfeeding affected intelligence. Of the 3,493 adult participants, the study team found that those who were breastfed for 12 months or more had higher IQ scores, more years of education and higher monthly incomes than those who were breastfed for less than one month. They concluded that “breastfeeding is associated with improved performance in intelligence tests 30 years later and might have an important effect in real life by increasing educational attainment and income in adulthood.”
Researchers believe that this is due to the transmission of the fatty acids such as the omega 3 docosahexanoic acid and the omega 6 arachidonic acid (typically found in red meats), which are both deposited in large amounts in the fetal growing brain. Ob/gyns highly recommend pregnant women take omega-3 EFAs, and before pregnancy, if possible, just for this reason.
Nutrients in Breastmilk
There are nutrients naturally occurring in breastmilk and that can be optimized for baby through diet, and good reasons why.
Baby receives the key macronutrients – protein, including lactoferrin, secretory IgA, lysozyme, and bifidus factor, fats and carbohydrates – through mother’s milk and typically in the range that is what the developing human body would need at that stage. According the researchers in one paper investigating the nutrient contents of breast milk samples, the “mean macronutrient composition of mature, term milk is estimated to be approximately 0.9 to 1.2 g/dL for protein, 3.2 to 3.6 g/dL for fat, and 6.7 to 7.8 g/dL for lactose.”
B Vitamins Thiamin is a coenzyme supporting metabolism of carbs and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs, valine, leucine and isoleucine). Pregnant women are at risk of deficiency, which could cause infantile beriberi, and is the leading cause of infant morbidity. Riboflavin is found in breast milk, directly related to mom’s intake. Deficiency can impact several metabolic pathways and incur skin abnormalities, impaired growth and impaired iron absorption. Pyridoxal is the primary form of vitamin B6 in breast milk, and mom’s production of this vitamin increase up to four-fold the first few weeks after childbirth, followed by a gradual decline, so it’s important to supplement with this vitamin, as after six months, its concentration may be too low for the baby’s needs. Vitamin B12 should also be supplied, as some studies have shown that vegan/vegetarian moms have lower concentrations of B-12 in their breast milk than that of omnivores or flexitarians. Further, mothers’ consumption of vitamin B-12 has been associated with breast milk B-12 concentrations at one, six and 12 months after delivery.
Folate (folic acid) is the “star” B vitamin women hear about, as it prevents a central nervous system anomaly called Spina bifida in babies.
Antioxidant Vitamins: Infants tend to have a sparse amount of vitamin A reserves so it is important that the form, retinol, is abundant in mother’s milk. One study found that pregnant women who supplemented with megadoses of vitamin A (200,000- to 400,000 IU) in the first week after birth, had a significant increase in breast milk retinol concentrations. During pregnancy, vitamin E is needed by the fetus as antioxidant protection and it greatly helps stimulate immune system development. Vitamin E in breast milk, however, decreases as the milk matures, but stabilizes after the first month of breastfeeding.
While not a direct antioxidant powerhouse, Vitamin D is a powerhouse on its own as it is known now to have a critical role in numerous physiological processes. And in pregnant women, D is good for them and their babies. According to one study, D has a significant part in infant bone growth, as well as healthy brain and immune system development. But it tends to be in low concentrations in breastmilk. According to an overview, research “supports an increase in breast milk vitamin D and 25(OH)D concentrations with maternal supplementation of 1,000–6,400 IU/d during lactation.”
Supplementation with minerals zinc, copper and iron are essential for breastfeeding, as according to one clinical investigation, “No significant association was found between maternal mean dietary zinc, copper, and iron intakes with their concentrations in milk. Dietary consultation or/and zinc supplementation is suggested for lactating women and infants.” Another study further clarified, “Milk iron, zinc, and copper concentrations at nine months postpartum are not associated with maternal mineral status, which suggests active transport mechanisms in the mammary gland for all three minerals.”
Calcium and phosphorus are most abundant in breast milk during early transitional milk and decrease gradually within the first six months. Additionally, most studies find no link between mother’s calcium consumption and breast milk calcium. Another study concluded “No significant relationship was found between intake of dietary supplements containing calcium and magnesium and levels of these elements in milk.”
Another study of new lactating mothers who ate a normal diet and a normal diet with supplementation, showed that the levels of zinc, copper and iodine in their milk was not influenced by short-term supplementary intakes and that the milk levels of those minerals were maintained over different levels of intake.
Other nutrients found in breastmilk are amino acids, such as glutamate, the most abundant in all stages of lactation, followed by taurine. Mothers-to-be are also strongly encouraged to obtain enough DHA and EPA (omega-3 essential fatty acids, as the body cannot make these on its own). Choline is important as it prevents stunting, and it is an essential amino for activating synthesis of sphingolipids, which are key in brain cell signaling.
How long a mother should breastfeed is the subject of controversy, but as some women choose to feed their children this way for several years. It’s what’s up to the mother and with proper guidance from her healthcare practitioner and pediatrician. One thing is for sure, however, an exclusive diet of mother’s milk in infancy has tremendous long-term benefits for the child.