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Breastfeeding: Best for Baby and Mother
Posted by Margaret Kim on Dec 02, 2005
One of the most powerful ways of giving your baby a healthy start in life is by breastfeeding. The following are a few of the numerous physical and mental benefits of breastfeeding:
Balanced Nutrients: Human breast milk contains a perfect balance of nutrients that your baby needs in a form that is easily digested. All mammals produce milk, but each species’ milk is unique in order to accommodate different growth rates, behaviours, and needs. For example, whale’s milk is especially high in fat because whale babies need a thick layer of blubber to keep warm in cold waters. With the brain being our most distinguishing feature, human milk has high levels of lactose and specific long chain fatty acids that are important in the development of our brains.
When it comes to matters of nutrition, what matters most is not how many vitamins and minerals a food has, but rather how many of those nutrients can be absorbed by the body, referred to as bioavailability. Mother’s milk is best because the nutrients contained in it are highly bioavailable, whereas nutrients in formula are not as bioavailable to your baby.
Beneficial fats: Fat in mother’s milk provides your baby with energy for growth and a reliable source of fuel reserves. It is absorbed and utilized by your baby with incredible efficiency, partly because mother’s milk contains lipase, an enzyme that helps your baby digest the fats in mother’s milk.
Mother’s milk is high in DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is important in the process of myelination. Myelination refers to the process of making myelin, a fatty sheath that surrounds and insulates nerve fibers so that they can carry information. DHA is vital for the growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissue. Because DHA in breast milk plays a critical role in the development of high-quality myelin and brain cells, it may contribute to the prevention of multiple sclerosis in adulthood. DHA is also needed for the proper development of your baby’s vision, as DHA is an important structural component of the retina.
Cholesterol: Breast milk is rich in healthy cholesterol, which provides the basic components for brain development and the manufacture of hormones. Studies have shown that in the first year of life, infants fed only mother’s milk had higher blood levels of healthy cholesterol than formula-fed babies.
Amino Acids: These building blocks of protein are important in the development of all of your baby’s cells. Taurine, an amino acid that plays an important role in the development of brain cells, is found in high concentrations in human milk.
Lactose and Beneficial Bacteria: Lactose is a natural sugar in milk that provides a source of energy and contributes to the development of your baby’s brain and central nervous system. Because lactose releases its energy at a slow, steady pace, it doesn’t contribute to the highs and lows in blood sugar normally associated with sucrose, which is the sugar that is often added to formula. Human milk contains 50 percent more lactose than cow’s milk.
Lactose in human milk promotes the growth of Lactobacillus bifidus, a group of friendly bacteria that prevents the growth of undesirable bacteria that can cause numerous intestinal problems like diarrhea in children. As Lactobacillus bifidus feed on lactose, they produce B vitamins that your baby needs. Mother’s milk contains much more Lactobacillus bifidus than cow’s milk or formula, which affects the odour and consistency of stools, as babies who are not breast-fed have quite a foul odour to their stools.
Your baby’s stomach prefers breast milk because it contains more whey protein than casein protein. Whey protein forms a soft curd that is easy for your baby to digest. Cow’s milk and most formulas contain more casein than whey. And casein is a protein that forms rubbery curds that are difficult to digest. Breast milk is digested quicker than cow’s milk or formula, is less likely to come back up, and doesn’t leave permanent stains on clothes.
Iron: Iron in mother’s milk is extremely well-absorbed. Up to fifty percent of the iron in human milk can be absorbed by your baby, compared to only ten percent of iron in cow’s milk and four percent of iron in iron-fortified formula. Proteins found in mother’s milk help your baby absorb iron into his or her blood.
Calcium: Critically important for strong teeth, bones, and overall health, calcium from mother’s milk is well absorbed. Cow’s milk contains calcium as well, but in different proportions than in mother’s milk, and is not as readily absorbed without added vitamin D. In the early 1900s, when artificial infant feeding became popular and replaced breastfeeding, it was common for children to develop rickets even though they were receiving plenty of calcium. It was later discovered that having a high concentration of calcium in the blood without sufficient levels of vitamin D meant it could not be absorbed. Nursing mothers should check with their doctors to ensure that they are not vitamin D deficient.
Brain: Your baby’s brain will grow more during infancy than during any other time. The brain reaches approximately sixty percent of adult size in the first year of life. Breast milk is the best food with which to nourish the brain. Breastfed children as a group have IQ scores averaging 7 to 10 points higher than formula-fed children. The longer your baby is breastfed, the greater his or her intellectual benefit.
Every time a baby interacts with caregivers, his or her brain creates new brain cells and makes connections between those cells. Breastfed babies have more contact with their mothers because they feed more often than formula-fed babies. More frequent holding and skin-to-skin contact among breastfed children promotes healthier brain development.
Disease Prevention: Human milk is a living substance. It contains protective bacteria, enzymes, antiviral agents, and antibodies which find and help eliminate harmful viruses or bacteria. One drop of breast milk contains approximately one million white blood cells. Antibodies in breast milk help to protect your baby against ear infections, respiratory infections like pneumonia, and digestive problems like diarrhea and constipation. Studies have shown that being fed breast milk early in life can help protect against obesity, tooth decay, allergies, and high blood pressure later in life.
Yummy Taste: Because breast milk is high in the natural sugar, it tastes fresh and sweet. Babies have highly developed taste receptors for sweet foods, so breast milk is especially yummy to infants. Breast milk also tastes different at each feeding, which helps to keep your baby interested in nursing and prepares your baby to enjoy a variety of healthy solid foods in the future.
Breastfeeding is also great for mom. Here’s why:
Quicker postpartum recovery: Your baby’s sucking stimulates the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract and return more quickly to its pre-pregnancy size.
Quicker return to ideal weight: Women who breastfeed have an easier time losing their pregnancy weight compared to women who formula feed. This is because the process of making milk uses up fat stores.
Better hormonal health and reduced risk of certain cancers: Prolactin and oxytocin are released when your baby nurses. These two hormones influence the overall balance of many other hormones and keep estrogen levels low. Low estrogen levels are clearly linked to a reduced risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer.
Reduced risk of postmenopausal osteoporosis: Women who have not breastfed are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis after menopause than women who have breastfed.
Bonding and relaxation: The hormone oxytocin that is released during nursing is the same hormone that is released during childbirth and intercourse. Known as a bonding hormone, it creates good feelings and motivates people to build strong human relationships. Breastfeeding also helps mom to feel peaceful, content, and relaxed through the release of prolactin. Prolactin is a stress-fighting hormone, an attribute that is supported by research has shown that breastfeeding moms are more tolerant of stress.
Other Advantages: Breastfeeding is economical. It is also convenient in that it requires no preparation or equipment to carry around. Breast milk is always available for your baby as long as he or she is with mom, and it is always at the perfect temperature. In the cold winter months, you don’t have to get up from a warm bed at night to prepare your baby’s food. Your baby can have her or his needs met right away.
Note: For women who believe they cannot produce milk or enough milk, it may be helpful to consult a lactation consultant, midwife, doula, or La Leche League leader. Problems with breastfeeding and milk production often have more to do with improper positioning of the baby, frequency of feedings, or environmental stressors rather than physiological inability. Knowledgeable professionals may be able to help new mothers overcome this problem.
For breastfeeding support: La Leche League (LLL) is a non-governmental organization providing information and encouragement, primarily through personal help, to women who desire to breastfeed their babies. LLL is active in 65 countries and territories worldwide. Groups are free, but memberships can be purchased to support the organization’s efforts. For more information on LLL in your area, please visit: lalecheleague.org.
Sears, Martha & Sears, William. The Breastfeeding Book: Everything You Need to Know About Nursing Your Child From Birth Through Weaning. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2000.
Torgus, Judy & Gotsch, Gwen. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 6th ed. New York: Penguin, 1997
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