We all have heard that breast milk is magical. But why? We have really begun to make strides in the scientific community in the past decade as the importance of human milk has proven its importance in a multitude of channels. After many years of research, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) still recommends breastfeeding for the first six months of life and that it continues for at least 12 months. In fact, the biologically normal age for humans to breastfeed is anywhere between around 2 and 7 years old. Human milk changes everyday, every session, to meet the unique needs of your baby. So if anyone tries to tell you it is time to stop breastfeeding your baby, you can rest assured, knowing that you are providing the best nutrition for your baby and you both will know when it is time to wean. The longer a mother breastfeeds, the more they (mother-baby) benefit short term and long term.
What exactly is in breast milk?
Breast milk composition is unique to each mother-baby dyad. Quite honestly, a whole book with several volumes can be written about the components in breast milk and their properties. Let's try to sum it up as best we can. Human milk has the perfect combination of proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates. Leukocytes are living cells that are only found in breast milk. They help fight infection. Antibodies, living cells, enzymes, and hormones in breast milk cannot be added to formula. In fact, research has kicked into hyper drive in trying to understand human milk and it's part in creating antibodies against COVID-19.
When scientists were studying the antibacterial properties of breast milk, they discovered HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to tumor cells). It is considered a tumoricidal, which means it only kills tumor cells, leaving healthy cells intact and untouched! Much research is still needed as this was only recently discovered the last few years. Human milk contains stem cells. Stem cells create and repair the body. It has long been researched worldwide to cure conditions like Alzheimer's and diabetes.
Breast milk also contains ingredients that naturally soothe infants. The proteins in breast milk are more easily digested than in formula or cow’s milk. The calcium and iron in breast milk are also more easily absorbed, which is why you can see higher than the recommended dosages in formula items, because it does not absorb as easily in that manner.
Let's Talk Benefits
When it comes to discovering the true potential of human milk, we are only just tasting the icing of the cake. Research is conducted everyday, to see what other possibilities can be made with human milk. Though the possibilities seem to be endless, there are many benefits that research has resulted over the years. There is a long list of benefits that we have developed. Let's break it down to the benefits for babies, children, and mothers, short term versus long term.
Benefits for Babies, Short-term
Stronger immune systems.
Less gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea, constipation, gastroenteritis, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and preterm necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
Less colds and respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and whooping cough.
Fewer ear infections (chronic ear infections can damage hearing).
Fewer cases of bacterial meningitis.
Better vision and less instances of retinopathy of prematurity.
Lower rates of infant mortality and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Benefits for Babies, Children and Young Adults, Long-term
Improved brain maturation and immunity to infection.
Lower rates of respiratory illness.
Fewer instances of allergies, eczema, and asthma.
Fewer childhood cancers, including leukemia and lymphomas.
Fewer instances of Crohn’s disease and colitis.
Fewer oral issues such as cavities, speech, and orthodontic problems.
Less likelihood of becoming obese and with that lower risk of Type I and II diabetes later in childhood.
Less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Less likely to develop heart disease in adulthood.
Lower risk of multiple sclerosis.
Lower rates of pre- and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Benefits for Mom from breastfeeding, Short-term
Better chance of reducing “baby weight” as breastfeeding can burn up to 500 calories per day.
Breastfeeding causes the uterus to contract, returning it to normal size and reducing the chances of postpartum bleeding/hemorrhage.
Fewer chances of anemia, postpartum depression, and urinary tract infections.
Benefits for Mom from breastfeeding, Long-term
Lowers risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Less instances of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease,endometriosis, and osteoporosis.
Up to 6 times less missed days of work due to children being sick less often.
Promotes overall mental and physical wellness from the production of oxytocin and prolactin during lactation. Breastfeeding can support the wellness of body, mind, and spirit for the whole family.
Breastfed babies tend to cry less overall, and have fewer incidences of childhood illness.
Breast milk is always clean which makes it convenient for traveling or if you lose electricity.
Research shows that affectionate bonding during the first years of life help reduce social and behavioral problems in both children and adults. Those that are left to “cry it out” constantly, can suffer from emotional distress that carry on into later years.
Through breastfeeding, mothers learn to read their infant’s cues and babies learn to trust caregivers. This helps to shape early development.
A common concern many mothers have is that they can not meet their breastfeeding goals. Though a small percentage of mothers may not be able to fully breastfeed, those moms can receive support and bond in other ways. Milk production is only a small part of the equation. Having a support system such as a partner, family member, healthcare provider, and friend can help tremendously.
Lactation specialists can also be a part of your village! Lactation consultants provide an enormous amount of knowledge and support to women learning to breastfeed, pump, or have questions related specifically to all things lactation-related. Milk banks or donor milk may be an alternative as well, but make sure to get thorough and updated information.
About the Author:
This article was written by Stephany Ley, BS, IBCLC. She spends her time serving the families in her community as a lactation consultant, providing prenatal and lactation support. Stephany states, “My hope is that by helping people start off strong with love and care, it will help build a foundation for a strong and loving future.” Stephany and her family reside in the Central Florida area.
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