Breast milk is a fascinating fluid that supplies babies with more than nutrition. It actively helps the newborn to avoid disease in a variety of ways. The nutritional composition of breast milk supports the gut microflora which plays an essential role in enhancing the immunity of infants. Studies have shown that breastfed infants have a lower risk of developing psoriasis, colic, eczema, asthma, allergies and diarrhoeal disease, ear infections like otitis media, urinary tract infections as well as diabetes.
All babies before birth receive protective antibodies from the mother via the placenta and these circulate in the infant’s blood for a few weeks after birth and fight the pathogens that enter the body. Babies are born without certain desirable bacteria that are needed for maintaining the health of the gut. When infants are exclusively breastfed they gain extra protection from the antibodies, other proteins, and immune cells that are present in breast milk.
Breast milk contains antibodies, live cells and lysozymes that protect against many common infections. It also contains an antiviral substance, interferon. Breastfed babies suffer less from digestive and intestinal disorders. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) – a life threatening intestinal infection, especially in premature
It comprises a nitrogen-containing carbohydrate called ‘Bifidus Factor’, which along with lactose promotes the growth of a special type of bacteria called Lactobacillus bifidus (bifidobacteria)that has an ‘intestinal guardian’ function, preventing the growth of undesirable and harmful bacteria. Bifidus factor is present in very high concentrations in colostrum.
Lactoferrin present in breast milk is a powerful bacteriostatic that binds free iron thereby rendering it unavailable for the growth of harmful bacteria particularly E. coli and at the same time allowing the iron to be absorbed. Lactoferrin is also effective against ‘Candida albicans’. Breast milk also contains lipases that help kill amoeba and giardia.
Breast milk contains ‘live milk cells’ that appear to assist in repelling infection both in mammary lacteals and in the baby’s intestinal tract. It also contains growth factors that help in the growth and development of the intestines of the infant in order to digest and absorb other foods.
Breastfeeding has psychological benefits too. As there is close contact with the mother, there is infant-mother bonding and hence babies are secure and emotionally more stable. Research studies have shown that:
Breastfed babies have a higher IQ than babies who are bottle fed.
Breastfeeding enhances learning readiness as well
Breastfed babies are less likely to become obese even in adulthood
Research studies have also shown that breastfeeding benefits mothers as well:
Besides its role in breastfeeding, oxytocin helps in placental delivery, stops haemorrhage after delivery, and helps the uterus to return to its normal pre-pregnant size. Thus it is important to start breastfeeding as soon as possible after delivery
Mothers who breastfeed their babies have a lower risk of developing breast cancer
Breastfeeding helps a mother lose weight
Breastfeeding helps postpone the next pregnancy. Although this is not a reliable method of family planning, it has been seen that in mothers who exclusively breastfeed, the hormone prolactin delays menstruation and ovulation and hence helps postpone the next pregnancy.
Ideally breastfeeding should be started as soon as the mother is comfortable to nurse. It can be as early as half hour in case of a normal delivery and in case of a caesarean delivery as soon as the mother regains consciousness.
(The writer is a consultant nutritionist with 21 years of experience, practising at Panaji and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)