Breast milk – How Important Is It For the Baby?

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Don’t cry over spilled milk. Unless it’s breast milk, in which case cry a lot!

-Author unknown

Benefits of breastfeeding cannot be ignored. But, in spite of which, only 41.6% of Indian babies are fed breast milk within an hour of being born, despite 79% of women delivering in a healthcare institution, a report released by UNICEF in May 2018 states.

Now, don’t these facts sound depressing? One of nature’s best gifts to humankind is breast milk. But why so? Why is breast milk so important? Let’s try and decode it:

  • All the benefits of breastfeeding your baby
  • Why you should exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months
  • Take home messages for the breastfeeding mother and her family

To enable mothers to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for six months, WHO and UNICEF recommend:

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

Benefits of breast milk for the baby

Let’s understand the benefits of breastfeeding for the child. As mothers, don’t we all wish to give the best to our offsprings?

Breast milk provides the ideal nutrition to babies 

Isn’t it wonderful that the composition of breast milk varies according to the growing infant’s requirements? Especially during the first month, when the baby is undergoing rapid growth and her needs vary. Colostrum is the first milk a mother produces, which is slightly thicker and yellow, and its composition differs too – tailor-made to suit the newborn’s needs. Colostrum is full of protein and low in fat, easy to digest, and brimming with components that start her development in the best possible way. And, perhaps even more importantly, it plays a crucial role in building his immune system. This makes for a strong argument in favour of benefits of breastfeeding for babies.

Breast milk is customised

 Typically, each feeding session lasts anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes. Did you know that during this time too, the composition changes? The milk that comes at the beginning of a feed is called foremilk, and the milk coming towards the end of the feed is known as hindmilk. Foremilk is more for the taste, while hindmilk is more nutritious, having higher fat content, providing more calories, and keeps the baby satiated for a longer time. It is, therefore, crucial to empty one breast completely, before switching sides during a feed.

Breast milk contains important antibodies

 Important antibodies are present in breast milk. These will help your infant fight viruses and bacteria. Colostrum, in particular, is rich in Immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays an important role in strengthening the immune function of mucous membranes, thus helping against diarrhoea, cold and flu–a very crucial point in benefits of breastfeeding.

Breast milk reduces risk of chronic diseases

 Whenever the child falls sick, the protective components in a mother’s milk increases, thus reducing the child’s risk to fall sick. And even if the child falls sick, the rate of recovery is going to be faster.

Since the child can never overfeed at the breast, her risk of developing childhood obesity also reduces, which in turn prevents other non-communicable diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension from developing later on in life.

Babies who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months are less likely to suffer from tooth decay, ear, and chest infections.

Breast milk is a rich source of probiotics 

Human milk has its own microbiome that helps to protect mothers and infants (Quinn, 2014). Human milk contains an abundance of probiotics or friendly bacteria. This helps protect the developing immature gut, thus protecting the baby from many infections.

Breast milk makes children smarter

Mother’s milk contains the fatty acids essential to the development of the baby’s nervous system and vision. This may be one of the reasons why breastfed babies’ IQ is higher. Research has found that breastfed babies perform better on different kinds of intelligence tests as they grow older.

Breast milk offers a lifelong psychological mother-child bond

 Breast milk also produces oxytocin, known as the “cuddle or love hormone,” which helps to create a lifelong mother-child bond. The child is also able to deal better with stress later on in life. And it’s not only about nutrition and immunity – breastfeeding when your baby is sick or upset comforts and soothes him. So, do not ignore this important benefit of breastfeeding. In fact, studies have shown that breastfeeding reduces crying and provides relief during vaccinations.

Breast milk is economical

 Breast milk is very light on the wallet and very heavy on the nutrition. Now, doesn’t this convince you more? It also saves you the hassle of measuring, boiling, mixing, sterilising, and carrying bottles with you. All you need is just your baby and you!

Why is exclusive breastfeeding/breast milk recommended for the first six months?

Babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Experts recommend this fact strongly. Breast milk is sufficientand supplementing with top feeds or solids is not needed, except when advised by the paediatrician. In the first six months, the infant does not need water also. Read here to know why.

The child’s organs are still developing. Her digestive system isn’t fully mature yet to be able to digest solids before she completes six months. Even after she completes six months of age, solids should only supplement, while breast milk should remain the fundamental source of nourishment.

Data indicates that 54.9% of children are exclusively breastfed and exclusive breastfeeding is on an average for 2.9 months. “Use of water and other fluids is one of the main reasons for discontinuation of exclusive breastfeeding,” UNICEF said.

National Family Health Survey (NFHS)

Take home message  

Breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of the mother. It can be exhausting, especially in the initial few weeks. Fathers can help by burping the baby after feeds, talking to the baby, and making her sleep. Others at home can help by creating a more supportive environment and by taking care of the infant, allowing the mother to get adequate rest. 

Breastfeeding mothers need to be eating more, but make sure you eat healthier, wholesome foods that are dense not in calories alone, but in nutrients too! Breastfeeding is the responsibility of the whole family. We should all support the mother in her decision to breastfeed and in creating a healthier future generation!

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