Breastmilk: Nature’s Perfect Food
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Ali is a registered dietitian (RD), certified diabetes educator (CDE), certified weight management specialist, and therapeutic lifestyle healthcare practitioner.
Integrative dietitian and founder of Naturally Nourished, a functional medicine private practice. Author of Naturally Nourished: Food-as-Medicine for Optimal Health cookbook and Reset, Restore, Renew: Real Food Detox program.
Ali has dedicated her career to revolutionizing food-as-medicine in treatment and prevention of disease. She has a passion to create public awareness regarding the significant role diet plays in our overall health with her philosophy of Food-As-Medicine. Through her writing, Ali addresses nutrition misconceptions and myths, clarifying the extensive amount of confusing and conflicting information that often saturates the media.
Man cannot out-science or out-create nature! We continue to learn this, and one of the best examples is in the birth and mothering process. Breastfeeding and its benefits are connected to cognitive development, growth and weight gain of the baby, and immune system resilience. In the last decade, formula companies have continued to work to mimic nature’s perfect food: breastmilk. This form of “nature’s gold” produced by a mother for her child provides the perfect balance of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats) along with the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to support optimal development and growth. However, up-to-date research demonstrates that beyond its nutritional properties breastmilk provides immunological support that develops the foundation of a child’s microbiome which writes his body’s immunological code.
Recently, baby formula companies have started to add probiotics to their products to work to provide colonizing bacteria to support the GI health of formula fed babies, but we continue to see that these compounds are less effective than those produced by nature through the mother’s vessel of the breast. Beyond probiotics, research recently discovered specific biological immunoglobulins providing additional benefit; some which shift in response to the baby’s needs in a 24-72 hr period (1)! This study demonstrated the milk produced by breastfeeding mothers changed in composition of white blood cells, TNF-alpha, and other immune fighters in response to infection of the baby. The proposed mechanism is that the nipple vacuums the saliva of the infant and the mother’s immune system aids in response to provide breastmilk richer in immune-supporting compounds to help baby ward off that specific bacteria or virus (1).
WOW! I thought this was amazing . . . so even pumping breastmilk for my baby would be inferior to breastfeeding as the milk my body produces is responsive to my baby’s need!
We have also discovered that the probiotic cultures found in breastmilk are more effective due to their accommodating prebiotic sugars in the form of human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) that further fuel the probiotic strains. A building body of evidence suggests HMOs are anti-adhesive to bad microbes working as an antimicrobial to prevent pathogen growth, lowering the risk for viral, bacterial, and parasite infections (2). Additionally, we are finding HMOs can adapt skin and immune cell responses, reducing eczema and other dermatitis conditions as well as reducing risk for autoimmune and digestive disease.
The Vital First 3 Days of Breastfeeding
As you may be familiar, the most essential compounds in milk are often delivered through the colostrum the breastmilk produced in the first 3 days of baby’s life. The colostrum varies in composition from advanced breastmilk as it is richer in fat and immunological compounds including secretory IgA–the unique immunoglobulin that lines intestines, respiratory tract, and skin as a barrier to protect the body against invaders. The IgA provided sets up the first line of defense for the baby’s immune system that will layout his immunological response in years to come!
Although natural and superior to formula . . . breastfeeding is not easy!
I strongly encourage breastfeeding for the first year to promote optimal health and development in your baby, and even though intentions may be strong, statistics show many busy moms give up! While 79% of mothers breastfeed after birth exiting the hospital, only 49% are still nursing six months later, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Below are 5 tips to stay committed to breastfeeding and ensure successful latch and production!
5 Tips for Successful Breastfeeding
Stress is the number one cause of reduction in production of breastmilk which can drive continued frustration. When starting the feeding process, taking deep breaths will help you to connect to baby and allow your baby to feel less overwhelmed at your likely lactating breast. This allows a more controlled swallow on your baby’s part and will promote a successful pace on both ends. Even when baby is stressed or having a difficult time latching, rather than forcing their head onto your nipple, try allowing baby to rest on your chest while you consciously breathe deeply, baby will “crawl” on your chest to the nipple when he is ready and you will not feel that you are battling him in the process.
2. Get a deep latch!
A deep latch is key for preventing nipple pain and irritation while promoting healthy milk production. When getting started with feeding, you may apply pressure on baby’s chin with your fingertip to encourage baby to open his mouth deeper. Also, you may place your hand behind your nipple and grasp your breast to provide a mouthful for baby if your nipples tend to be flatter. If your breast is engorged, it may only allow a shallow latch which can lead to nipple irritation and pain. In this case, try pumping or manually expressing some milk to allow more fluidity in breast and to make it easier to achieve a deeper latch. Be sure to observe a deep latch feed through a friend who has success with breastfeeding or watch a video to understand the latch and deep swallow vs. shallow guppy-like feeding.
3. Hold off on nipple alternatives until after 6 weeks!
Although a pacifier may be a welcomed support in those first couple of weeks with sleepless nights, try to avoid it! Providing a synthetic nipple can cause nipple confusion which can result in breast protest or difficulty with feeding.
4. Don’t over pump!
Feed your baby, not the freezer! Although there may be peace of mind with your freezer full of gold to aid with your return to work, know that over-pumping continues to create over-production which can lead to clogged ducts and mastitis. Be mindful that your baby is the best calibrator for optimal production so as best as you can, allow for direct breastfeeding. Also, it is not uncommon for babies to eat skimpy when mom is away and make up for lost time when she returns from work. This is to your benefit as noted above and baby may need those direct immunoglobulins to support optimal health.
5. Let it flow!
Prevent engorged breasts by taking warm showers, massaging breast tissue ,and wearing a supportive nursing bra that is not too tight or restrictive. Use coconut oil to protect nipples and prevent mastitis with its natural antifungal compounds. Wash breasts daily and if experiencing cracking or nipple pain, consider a salt water soak. Take 1-2 tsp sea salt in 6 oz hot water and soak a washcloth. Squeeze washcloth over nipple and breast while leaning over a sink and then rinse with warm water prior to feeding again. Although when in pain the idea of giving baby a bottle may seem dreamy, know that breastfeeding is often the best solution to the problem and baby will be the best vehicle for removing backup or blockage. When feeding, consider manually massaging breast in areas of density to aid in release and flow.
You got this ladies! Stay present and focused on the greater good, and with relaxation you will prevail!
Riskin A, Almog M, Peri R, Halasz K, Srugo I, Kessel A. Changes in immunomodulatory constituents of human milk in response to active infection in the nursing infant. Pediatr. Res. 71(2), 220–225 (2012).
Brandtzaeg P. The mucosal immune system and its integration with the mammary glands. J. Pediatr. 156(2 Suppl.),S8–S15 (2010).