Sweet Nectar of Life

Breastfeeding. It’s all around us, from the pages of Glamour magazine and storming social media, to the age-old paintings on the walls of the Louvre Museum in Paris. These days you can’t seem to get away from the subject. As National Breastfeeding Month comes to a close, it is imperative that people not only see the trendy side of breastfeeding, but also appreciate the science behind it.

As new mothers in the throes of the postpartum period, sometimes we face a litany of obstacles that play into our decision of whether or not to breastfeed; time, distance, complications, work, stress levels, medications… the list goes on. Even if you are unable to breastfeed, or choose not to, there are still breast milk options available. Consider breast milk banks as an alternative to formula or as supplementation. There are lots of resources available to parents contemplating this option. Even if you choose to pass on the breastfeeding and milk banks, you can still marvel in the science and maybe even encourage your fellow breastfeeding mothers!                                    

What really makes breast milk best?

Let’s start with a few facts on how it benefits baby. After the treacherous journey through the birth canal, babies are suddenly subjected to a world outside of the protection of the womb, a world full of microorganisms just waiting to colonize their intestinal tract. Some of these bacteria are beneficial while others can lead to illness. The beauty of breast milk is that it contains bioactive components that help to teach the baby’s gut the difference, building a solid immune system. Antibodies, antimicrobials, probiotics, anti-inflammatory factors – there’s a whole slew of goodies found only in breast milk that all work toward one goal, a healthy baby. At the University of Illinois, researchers were able to track how the cells in an infant’s GI tract developed by looking at cell gene expression and the development of immune functions based on a diet of breast milk or formula. What they discovered is that infants on a breast milk diet had a different gene expression profile than that of the formula babies. In other words, breast milk actively changed how their cells function, helping to stave off infections and promote tolerance to food sources later in life. By helping to mature the infant’s gut immunity, they are less likely to have infections resulting in diarrhea in the first 6 months of life as well as less likely to develop celiac disease (an auto-immune disease associated with gluten).

Breast milk also contains special nutrients (oligosaccharides) that help to ensure the beneficial bacteria can attach and colonize the intestinal tract so that the disease-causing bacteria can’t attach and grow. Along with promoting immunity, breast milk also functions as an anti-inflammatory in response to the immature and excessive inflammation response in newborns. This can be especially important in protecting premature babies from a deadly disease called NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis).

Not only does this magic milk protect our precious infants, it soothes them too. You may have heard of hind milk and foremilk. As a baby suckles, the composition of breast milk changes to contain more fat globules often referred to as hind milk. Mixed in with all this fat is a hormone called leptin. The presence of more fat and leptin tells the baby’s brain “I’m full!” leaving them satified and preventing overeating. Formula-fed infants do not get the same signals to tell them they are full. And, babies only receiving formula receives the same nutrients every time it eats. Breast milk not only changes during each feeding to produce the sensation of fullness, but changes throughout the life of the baby. As breastfeeding extends into months and even years, the energy-giving components increase. Once solid foods are introduced and breast milk is taken less often, mothers often worry their baby is not getting the same amount of nutrients needed. However, their body has already compensated for this by producing less milk that has higher energy content. What an amazing organ the breast is, and it sometimes gets attention for the wrong reasons!

Breast feeding isn’t just a great thing for babies; it can offer protections for moms too. During breast feeding sessions, maternal levels of a hormone called oxytocin rise. With the rise of oxytocin throughout the first days after birth during feedings, breastfeeding women show personality shifts that make them more social, calmer, and tolerant of monotony. By simply breast feeding, a woman’s body naturally begins to prepare itself for the rigors of motherhood. Amazing isn’t it! And it doesn’t stop there. It has been shown that long-term, breastfeeding can reduce a woman’s risk for breast cancer. The risk reduction is directly related to the total time spent breast feeding over your lifetime. 

Long-term breastfeeding brings up a much debated point; just how long should you breastfeed to make sure you and your baby reap all the amazing benefits of breast milk? The WHO recommends that you exclusively breastfeed for a minimum of 6 months, after which supplementing the breast milk with solid foods. There is no limit on how long you can breast feed your child, but generally mother and baby mutually end breastfeeding around the age of 2. Here is a list of WHO recommendations for success:

  • Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life
  • Exclusive breastfeeding – that is the infant only receives breast milk without any additional food or drink, not even water
  • Breastfeeding on demand – that is as often as the child wants, day and night
  • No use of bottles, teats or pacifiers

Anyone who has breastfed knows that success isn’t always so easy. There are many things that can interfere with a woman’s ability to breastfeed, whether physical, emotional, or social reasons. The good news is there are countless resources available to expecting and new mothers to help prepare them and propel them down the road to successful breast feeding. Here’s just a few:

La Leche League –http://www.llli.org/

WIC Clinic Breastfeeding Coordinators- http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/Contacts/cooralpha.htm

CDC Breast feeding- http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/

World Health Organization Breastfeeding- http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/


Primary author: Amanda Haney (amanda.haney@lmunet.edu)

Amanda is a second year medical student at Lincoln Memorial University- DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine and 2-time breastfeeding mommy. She is an active duty military member and currently serves as a second lieutenant in the US Army. After graduation, Amanda plans to pursue a career in medicine that focuses on women’s health.


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