What Makes Breast Milk so Good?
I think most of us agree that breast milk is the best thing since sliced bread, but do we really know why? We have been told this by our grandmother, the CDC , the Academy of Pediatrics, our doctor, etc. Very rarely does someone really tell us the specifics of why it is so good, and why it is impossible to replicate. I am a believer in a whole foods approach to nutrition, and breast milk is the ultimate whole food.
A whole foods approach to nutrition basically means exactly what it says... eat the whole, real food and not just a portion or ingredient. The whole orange is better than just the juice (by a lot) and eating many fruits/vegetables is much better than taking a multivitamin. Research shows that eating real (not processed), whole foods decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and many cancers. So... now to the specific make-up of breast milk that cannot be replicated by formula or a vitamin.
Breast Milk Ingredients/Facts:
1. The first few days after delivery a nursing mother produces colostrum. Colostrum
is rich in protein and antibodies. Antibodies help a newborn fight infections. The colostrum also helps a newborn's digestion work smoothly the first few days.
2. Mature breast milk
will typically appear at 3-4 days after an infant's birth. Mature breast milk is loaded with fat. Yep... lots of fat. Although most adults avoid fats like the plague, it is a crucial macronutrient for a newborn. Fat packs a lot of calories in a small volume and is very important for brain, eye and nervous system development.
3. The main carbohydrate or sugar is lactose
(like that in cow's milk), and there are many types of protein. One of the main proteins is casein
which is also predominant in cow's milk. Other proteins that really pack a punch are IgA and IgG- these are antibodies from a mother that help a newborn/infant fight off infections. The IgA specifically is very good at fighting colds, ear infections and intestinal infections. An amazing feature of breast milk is that the amount and type of antibodies is very specific and unique to each mother/infant unit. The milk seems to "know" how to customize itself for what an infant truly needs.
4. Breast milk has iron
... Less than formula but more readily digested and absorbed than the amount in formula. Let me point out that iron is good and very important for avoiding anemia (low red cells), maintaining good growth and again, promoting growth of the brain/nervous system. Iron has been blamed for a lot of tummy aches, colic, and constipation but rarely is the culprit. A baby receiving breast milk would not need an iron supplement until possibly 4-6 months of age.
5. Vitamin D
is very likely the only thing breast milk may be lacking to promote an infant's growth/development. The deficiency is related to a mother's nutrition and/or lack of sunlight exposure. A deficiency in Vitamin D for an infant can cause Rickets, a severe bone disease and can impair brain/nervous system growth. All infants receiving breast milk for their main or sole source of nutrition should be supplemented with Vitamin D 400 IU/day.
There you have it... the perfect whole food. It is cheap, fosters growth and development, helps protect against infection and reduces risk for certain chronic disease. The components of breast milk are a unique blend that has never been able to be produces commercially. Breast milk is a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts!
By Dr. Barry Phillips, Pediatrician, Deaconess Clinic
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