the wonders of breastmilk

It is a well-known saying which goes when it comes to infant feeding “breast is best”. Some may say the saying is a little cheesy and sure to provoke a few giggles at antenatal classes, but this little saying doesn’t even come close to starting to describe miraculous properties of breast milk.

Breast milk is truly magical, not only does it come ready to drink, at the perfect temperature and consistency, completely free of charge and on demand, it supplies your new born baby with the best ingredients needed for growth and development. We always hear about these magical ingredients, and moms-to-be are always recommended to breastfeed, but what exactly does breast milk contain to make it such a phenomenal milk?

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Let’s start off by saying that breastmilk’s blueprints are based on a baby’s nutritional requirements at different stages of life. Given that your body made your baby, and your subsequent breast milk, it is no surprise that your breast milk will mimic exactly what your baby needs. Breastmilk is nutritional complete and contains the correct balance of energy, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals to support your baby’s growth. One of the unique properties of breastmilk is that it not only changes within a feed but also during different stages of life. As a baby’s nutritional requirements change with development, your breast milk will change to match these requirements.

The taste of breastmilk may also vary in accordance with mom’s diet and strong flavours such as garlic, onions or spices can influence the taste. Being exposed to varying flavours is beneficial (verses being exposed to a standard taste) and breastfed babies are usually more open to eating a wider range of foods when it comes time to introduce solids.

Starting on day 1, and as you start the journey of breastfeeding, your body will produce a yellowy and thick liquid. This unique milk is called colostrum, sometimes referred to as liquid gold, as it contains large quantities of proteins, antibodies and anti-infective agents which act like a first immunization. This is particularly important for a new born baby who has been protected in utero for a past 9 months and suddenly exposed to a world of bugs and germs. Colostrum enhances the development of the baby’s gastro-intestinal tract and has a laxative effect which helps the baby to pass the meconium, which is the first stool. Colostrum helps to prevent neonatal jaundice by clearing the bilirubin from the gut. Colostrum will last for a few days after which your breast milk will change into a whiter and thinner liquid.

As mentioned, breastmilk contains the correct balance of energy, carbohydrates, fats and proteins to support baby’s growth. Breastmilk contains about +-37% carbohydrates which is mainly in the form of lactose. Lactose is a milk sugar which gives breastmilk the slightly sweeter taste and serves as a good energy source for baby. Lactose also serves an important role as when fermented in the gut, it encourages the growth of probiotics. Probiotics keep the balance of bacteria in the gut healthy. Oligosaccharides are also an important component of breast milk. In past decades, it has become apparent that the oligosaccharides are responsible for protecting against pathogens, which is thought to be primarily due to their ability to protect the gut lining.

One of the wonderful properties of breastmilk is it’s anti-infective properties. In some cultures, fresh break milk is used as eye drops to treat conjunctivitis: else where is it common practice to use breastmilk to cure cracked nipples. It has been heard to be used to treat cold sores or rashes. Breastmilk is abundantly filed with immunoglobulins, enzymes, and leucocytes to help protect baby against disease. Lactoferrin, an important component of breast milk, has a direct antibiotic effect on bacteria such as staphylococci and E. coli.

A general trend is that breastfed babies usually suffer from less constipation than its counterparts which is partly due to the protein being predominantly whey based, which is gentler on digestion. The amino acid taurine is also found in abundance in breast milk which has an important role in the development of the brain and the eyes. Breastmilk is high in fat, essential fatty acids and cholesterol. This is particularly important for the development of your baby’s nervous system and brain. Being the dynamic milk that it is, the fat content of breast milk changes within a feed, which has traditionally been known as the fore milk and hind milk. The “fore” indicating that this is received at the start of the feed, and the hind milk being received towards the latter part of a feed. The foremilk is usually more watery and lower in fat and serves to quench your baby’s thirst. As the feeding progresses, the fat content of the milk rises steadily as the volume decreases. The milk near the end of the feed is therefore lower in volume but higher in fat. Now it is difficult to accurately predict when fore milk changes to hind milk as there isn’t a set time within a feed that the switch happens. It is more of a gradual process. This can sometimes cause anxiety in moms, as they may worry whether there baby is getting enough of the fatter hind milk. The emptier your breasts feel will usually indicate the higher fat content of the milk and due to this try avoid switching to the second breast too soon.

There are over 100 components of breastmilk which make it such a wonder milk, and the above highly only some of the main components. In addition to the nutritional value of breastmilk, breastfeeding offers a great sensory experience for baby and an opportunity for mom and baby bonding. The experience of breastfeeding is not fully understood until you experience with your own precious bundle of joy. Mom also benefits from breastfeeding and it helps to expend energy needed to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight. Breastfeeding also aids in your uterus returning back to its original size. Breastfeeding is traditionally known for acting as a natural contraceptive, although this is not full proof method and therefore be warned as baby number 2 may arrive sooner than you plan.

No one can argue that breast milk is the gold standard when it comes to infant feeding, but what about the process of actually getting the breast milk out. For some, breastfeeding comes naturally and is an enjoyable process where baby latches and feeds well without any hiccups. For others, breastfeeding isn’t always as easy. We are often fooled by the beautiful mom in the baby books sitting very serenely with her new born baby who is contently feeding and everything around them seems to glow. Reality is often not so delightful and actually involves a tired mom, and a tired hungry screaming baby biting at your nipples. For those who struggle to breastfeed, you not alone and it isn’t always something that comes naturally just because you are a mom. Do not lose hope, there is support available and do not be afraid to consult your clinic sister or a lactation consultant who can help guide you along the way. And if you end up with cracked sore nipples, dab some breastmilk on them to heal them. Remember some breast milk is always better than no breastmilk so do not be too hard on yourself if you are unable to sustain breastfeeding. To all the moms-to-be and moms out there, wishing you all the best for your breastfeeding journey.

Article by breastfeeding consultant Jenna Richards