By the end of pregnancy, all women begin to ponder the next stage-having the baby. Birth is an important milestone worthy of education and proper decision-making, but what is more important is how the mother will deal with different aspects of childcare once the day of birth is over. Feeding the baby is one of the very first priorities. The debate regarding whether to breastfeed or formula feed might still be going on, but it will never undermine the strength of the scientific research that backs up the positive effects of breastmilk for babies. It is more than nutrition necessary for survival. It actually affects many factors in the babies’ lives, such as future weight, immunity and IQ.
Breastmilk production is one of the most miraculous processes in the human body. The dynamics of making milk and feeding it to the baby have been mostly uncovered, but research is still ongoing and many amazing facts are being unraveled and confirmed to this day. Analysis of breastmilk has shown numerous advantages over the years, but not all women know that the creation of milk itself, and the subsequent feedings, have positive effects on the health and wellbeing of the mother.
Whether or not a woman chooses to breastfeed and regardless of the duration of breastfeeding, there are many awe-worthy facts about breastmilk that any woman must be aware of. In fact, all the campaigns aimed at new mothers and launched in favor of breastfeeding and rely on those facts to support their opinion.
15 It Starts Early
Although breastmilk is only used when a baby is born, the process of making milk starts as early as 2 months into a pregnancy. Milk ducts start forming and expanding to get ready for future breastfeeding. The milk is produced in small clusters of cells, known as the alveoli. Fats and connective tissue in the breast maintain and protect the milk. By the end of the pregnancy, milk production is sometimes complete. This is evident in some women whose breasts leak towards the last few weeks.
Breastfeeding is a big change in the body, structurally and hormonally. The fact that it starts adapting early is advantageous because the body needs time to adjust to such a major change. The cellular changes and milk formation itself take time, especially when the baby is not yet there to trigger more milk formation. Once the baby is born, the natural sucking movement completes the cycle and initiates more milk production to sustain the baby’s health and growth.
14 It Is Hormone-Related
Breastmilk production is initiated and controlled by hormones. During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone soar, leading to many of the physical changes in pregnancy. Another hormone, prolactin, is the key player in breastfeeding. It starts rising during pregnancy and is responsible for the formation of milk ducts and the production of milk itself. It continues to increase throughout breastfeeding as the baby latches and feeds.
Oxytocin is also an important hormone. It is called the “bonding” hormone and it plays a role in the bonding between a mother and her baby. It is released heavily during the breastfeeding process itself after the baby is born. It is also necessary for the let-down reflex, which allows the baby to receive milk. Interestingly, it is responsible for the contraction occurring at birth to help deliver the baby and suddenly shifts its role once the baby is born to support the breastfeeding process and the emotional bonding.
13 It Protects The Mother
The positive effects of breastfeeding have long been researched in terms of how they protect the baby from diseases, provides superior nutrition and controls many future aspects of his/her life. In parallel, research has been going on to discover how breastfeeding affect the mother’s body. First, it was found to decrease the possibility of the mother getting breast and ovarian cancers, which is very important especially in cases of women with family history of the diseases.
Second, it lowers the risk of osteoporosis. Logically, the lack of estrogen in breastfeeding and the constant withdrawal of calcium from the mother’s body take a toll on her bones. However, extended studies confirm that bone density reverts back to normal or even higher density after weaning if the mother breastfeeds. This paradox adds to the benefits of breastfeeding and eliminates concerns about bone health, but still supports the fact that proper nutrition and calcium intake during this period are paramount.
12 It Adapts To Feeding Frequency
Breastmilk production is a versatile process. It adapts to various stimuli. The most prominent stimuli that is in supreme control of the process is the baby’s suckling. Receptors in the breast response to a baby’s feeding and signals the body to produce more milk. A noteworthy idea is that the body responds well to the suckling of a newborn even though he/she has a very small stomach and consumes a little amount of milk per feeding. The further the baby grows, the more milk is produced per feeding to accommodate the needs, especially if the baby nurses continually.
This proves that it is the frequency of feeding that plays the major role in breastmilk production responses and not the amount of milk consumed. This is apparent in toddlers who feed more milk per feedings, but for a less number of times per day. Their mothers produce milk, but not as quick or as efficient as an exclusive breastfeeding mother of an infant.
11 It “Heals” Diabetic Mothers
Diabetes is worldwide problem. In some women, diabetes is exacerbated by pregnancy. Hormones from the placenta can lead to a buildup of sugar in blood, unless counteracted by the pancreas. When the pancreas is unable to limit blood sugar gestational diabetes occurs. Gestational diabetes affects pregnant women and elevates the risk of diabetes later in life. When an already diabetic woman gets pregnant, she is given medication suitable for her with no risk on the baby’s health.
In women who breastfeed, blood sugar is naturally controlled. It does not eliminate the need for medication but it decreases the required dosage. It is important, however, to consult a doctor about doses and safety of medications used and to establish a food regime that includes healthy snacks to avoid blood sugar drop. Monitoring blood sugar is also essential regularly to maintain health of the mother and the baby.
10 It Is Good For Postpartum Health
Postpartum changes are not less surprising than pregnancy ones. Hormones change and with them physical and emotional change stake a whole new turn. Prolactin and oxytocin increase postpartum and control many functions. During breastfeeding, oxytocin increases and potentiates uterine contractions, encouraging the uterus to decease back to its normal size after a huge expansion during pregnancy. It also minimizes bleeding after delivery, because it facilitates delivery of the placenta and makes the body heal faster.
Prolactin plays a role not only in the physical aspect of breastfeeding, but also has emotional benefits. It is a relaxing hormone that is released during sleep in all humans, regardless of gender. So, when it increases in breastfeeding, it helps the new mother cope with the stressful life of a newborn. It may protect against postpartum depression, and if it happens, it helps the mother heal from it.
9 Breastmilk Changes Throughout The Day
Breastmilk composition changes with a woman’s diet, environment and time of day. It is known that some foods, such as garlic, make the taste of breastmilk better and babies are happy to consume it. There are concerns about garlic because it might give the baby colic, so mothers should watch out for the disadvatages of certain foods before eating them. Breastmilk produced during the night contains more sleep-encouraging elements. The amino acid tryptophan in breastmilk released at this time promote the activation of serotonin receptors that induce sleep. Also, it contains more melatonin, which helps babies develop circadian rhythms and settle faster into normal day and night sleeping times.
Also, foremilk and hindmilk are two forms of breastmilk. First, light foremilk is fed to the baby containing more immunity-boosting elements, although it is less filling. By the end of the feeding, heavier hindmilk contains more fat and calories to fill the baby up and satisfy his/her appetite. Foremilk and hindmilk vary in color and texture, with hindmilk being denser, stickier and yellowish.
8 It Is Affected By Smoking
Smoking has damaging effects on women and their babies. Some women cannot quit and continue to smoke, albeit lightly, throughout their pregnancies and breastfeeding periods. There is no medical reason why a smoking mother should not breastfeed, but her milk production is not as easy as that of a non-smoker. First, there is less milk supply in smokers, which is related to the decrease in prolactin production.
Also, women who smoke directly before breastfeeding experience let-down problems, which makes the baby unable to feed. It takes 95 minutes for half of the nicotine to be cleared from the body, causing the negative effects to persist between feedings. Third, smoke lessens the amount of iodine in breastmilk, which means that smoking mothers -especially those whose diet lacks iodine- consider taking an iodine supplement to make sure their babies are getting enough.
7 It Varies Among Women
Due to numerous factors, no breastmilk produced from different women is alike. If a mother produces different milk constituents with reference to time of day, food consumed and environmental factors, there is no way breastmilk will be the same among different women. Yet, it is equally nutritious, which is why breastmilk donation or cross-feeding is still encouraged. These practices help women who cannot breastfeed give their babies perfect nutrition.
In some women, for various factors, breastmilk is not as rich as other women. Also, sometimes in is not enough. Sickness is one of the factors that affect breastmilk production, which is why chronically ill women may not be able to breastfeed. Also, chronic illness calls for lifetime medication with drugs that may harm the baby. It is important to acknowledge those differences and accept that every woman does her best to feed her baby the best way possible.
6 Pumping Increases Supply
Some women, especially working mothers, attempt pumping to maintain their milk supply and to give breastmilk to their babies even when they are in the hands of a caregiver. Pumping mimics the action of a baby’s suckling and causes the body to release more milk, replacing what was pumped. When women start pumping, they see only a little amount of milk, which can be discouraging and give the illusion that they are unable to use this technique. However, milk supply actually gets better by pumping and by a few days into the routine, pumping produces more milk than it did at the beginning.
If a woman is struggling with milk supply, she could try what is known as “power pumping”. This resembles cluster feeding, which is when a baby feeds on and off all day. Power pumping involves pumping for 10 minutes and then resting for the same duration. This goes on for about an hour. The signals the body received during those processes boost the milk supply and enable the mother to feed the baby well without resorting to formula.
5 There Is Always Milk Left
Breastmilk is usually not emptied completely from the breast. There is always a reserve that is maintained inside the breast after feedings. However, the lack of milk stimulates the reflexes that start milk production, because the little amount of milk is not enough to feed a baby to fullness. This is why even with this fact; breastmilk production continues to maintain infant feeding all the time.
Interestingly, some milk remains in the breasts long after weaning. Of course, milk disappears quicker in women who breastfeed sparingly than those who breastfeed throughout the day. In women who do not give formula at all, it could take weeks or even months for the milk to disappear completely. Usually this difference is seen between weaning an infant who breastfeeds all the time and weaning a toddler who is already eating table food and drinking plenty of liquids like water and diluted juices.
4 It Responds To Baby’s Sickness
The feature was a breakthrough when it was discovered and made scientists marvel at the miracle of nature. No matter how much immunity is provided to the baby through breastmilk, other factors could contribute to the baby getting sick. Babies could catch colds, get infected or any other ailment caused by microorganisms. Research unveiled the fact that the baby's saliva stimulates the breast to make antibodies specific to the illness and release them in the milk.
On the cellular level, leukocytes, which are a type of white blood cells responsible for immunity, elevate in response to the suckling of a sick baby. This means that the increased antibody content of milk is not the only way that a mother’s milk fights germs in a sick baby. This is an advantage that mother who exclusively pump might be losing. Therefore, it is advised that mothers who pump give their babies a session or two at the beginning and the end of the day, if possible.
3 It Varies For Boys And Girls
It is known that breastmilk is tailored to offer the best nutrition and immunity to suit babies. An exciting study was conducted at Michigan State University and other institutions investigating the difference between breastmilk compositions for male and female infants in rural women in Kenya. It concluded that women produced more dense milk, richer in fat, when the infant is male. Another study published in 2010 was conducted on well-nourished mothers in Massachusetts concluded similar results.
It is also argued in a study by Katie Hinde, PhD, at Harvard University that female infants receive more calcium in breastmilk and are more likely to receive more milk than their male counterparts. Also, males receive more protein and lower sugar. Her studies are done on monkeys so it is not known whether the findings can be reliably extrapolated to include humans. Yet, the differences found to date are worth further experimenting.
2 Breastmilk Has The Right Microorganisms
Germs are filtered away from breastmilk before it reaches the milk ducts, giving it a huge advantage over formula that could get contaminated, especially in areas where access to clean water is limited. However, breastmilk is not sterile. A study in 2007 found that breastmilk contains probiotic bacteria, similar to those found in yoghurt, that helps develop the gut of the baby.
Even if the mother is sick, the infection is her body is never transferred to her baby. If a mother is suffering from a gastrointestinal infection, her baby is safe as long as she is taking medications that do not appear in breastmilk or are harmless. If a mother has a cold, she is advised to wear a mask before feeding her baby. This is just a precaution, because the antibodies created by the mother’s body to ward off infection seep into the milk and protect the baby.
1 Undernourished Mothers Can Do It
Another magical thing about breastfeeding is that any mother can do it. While being undernourished can cause breastfeeding to be tedious and exhausting to the mother, the milk quality is still good enough to nourish a baby. Also, because breastfeeding has several health benefits to the mother herself, there is no reason she should not pursue it. Mothers who breastfeed need a lot of energy and should therefore substitute the energy lost with as much nutrition as possible.
Another aspect of milk quality is vitamins and minerals. When an undernourished mother loses vitamins and minerals from her body’s reserve, she need supplement to make up for what she lost. It is better than substituting with formula, which is still expensive. So, the cost a mother will pay on supplements and adequate feeding is better spent this way than spent on formula. This is to provide both the mother and the baby with the benefits associated with breastfeeding.