One of the defining features that distinguish mammals from other animals is their ability to feed their young nutrient rich milk. In fact, the word “mammal” is derived from the word “mammary” which are the unique glands that are responsible for milk production. Neither birds, reptiles, insects nor fish can feed their young milk. For this reason, mammals dominate the earth, are more intelligent and have lower mortality rates relative to other animals.
Humans, the dominant mammal species, also benefits their young by feeding them milk. Human milk is high in energy, proteins and fat. It contains essential vitamins and minerals. On top of that, it has hormones, beneficial bacteria, and enzymes that assist the baby.
Most of the milks energy comes from the fat content almost half of which is saturated. The second highest source of energy in human milk is from sugar. Human milk contains a unique form of sugar known as human milk oligosaccharides. These sugars are ironically not digestible by infants, however, they provide the infant with the cultivation of beneficial bacteria as well as improving defense against pathogens.
Most of the protein in human milk is whey. Whey can make up 60% of the total protein in human milk with up to 40% being casein. The inverse composition is true for cow’s milk which is 80% casein and 20% whey. Whey protein is demonstrated to help with protein synthesis by the body. A small population is allergic to casein protein.
Human milk is high in vitamin C which assists the immune system. Cow’s milk has none. Human milk is also higher in Vitamin A and D than cow’s milk. Milk contains up to 25 IU of vitamin D per liter of human milk. In some regions, notably northern regions or regions with heavy cloud cover, supplementation is required at 400 IU per day for the first two months. Calcium in human milk is relatively lower than cow’s milk, but it is in a more bioavailable form for infants.
A newborn human baby does not have a fully developed immune system. During the first few weeks after delivery, the mother’s milk is high in protein and antibodies that assist the infant in defending against pathogens.
There are many substances in human milk that regulates appetite. Infants who breastfeed typically have lower caloric intake than formula fed babies. This is despite the fact that human milk is more calorie rich. Formula fed babies, without this hormone, will drink more leading to more consumption and higher calories.
There are over 600 species of bacteria in human milk. Among these include beneficial bacteria that are also used as probiotics and used in the fermentation of milk products. Many of the cultures are not found in cow’s milk or formula derived from cow’s milk.
Prolactin and oxytocin are responsible for stimulating the production of milk in humans. Prolactin not only stimulates milk production in human females but in males also. Typically, human females produce prolactin after childbirth. It is not well documented how human males produce enough prolactin to start lactating.
The quantity of milk in humans can be stimulated or limited by several factors. Regularly pumping via electric pumps into bottles is a good method of stimulating more milk production. Heating and massaging the breasts before and during breast feeding has also been known to produce larger quantities. In addition to greater quantities, massaging increases fat content in the milk.
Breast feeding can be painful. Some women experience 30 to 60 seconds of pain in the nipple when starting breast feeding. A momentary pause may help. The pain should subside, but if it doesn’t, there can be other problems such as improper latching of the baby to the breast. Improper latching is when the baby sucks primarily on the nippl. Proper latching is when the baby sucks more around the areola [mayo1]. Other reasons for pain include infection of the milk ducts (mastitis) causing clogs or a yeast infection of the breast. Heating or massaging can help clear clogs in the ducts. Massaging breast milk onto the nipple and letting it air dry can also ease pain.
Nutrients and antibodies aren’t the only things passed from the mother to child during breastfeeding. Substances that are harmful, such as nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs can be passed in the milk. Breastfeeding mothers should not smoke or drink alcohol. Some medications are okay, but others are not. Consulting a medical professional should precede breastfeeding while taking medications. Caffeine should also be avoided if possible or limited to less than 300mg per day. Coffee, a popular caffeinated drink has anywhere from 35 mg to over 200 mg per 100 g. Other drinks such as soft drinks and energy drinks also contain caffeine. Psychoactive drugs such as cannabis may also have negative effects on infants who are breastfed, but the specifics of the effects are not well understood.
In addition to the things that should be avoided, there are activities that the nursing mother should do to maintain both her own health and the health and nutritional value of the milk. A nursing mother should have a diet rich in diverse nutritional foods. She should drink plenty of fluids. Urine color analysis can aide in the identification of whether or not a mother is drinking enough liquids. Clear to light yellow urine is a good indicator. Darker urine indicates more liquids are required. A nursing mother should drink up to 3.7 liters a day.
Many flavours can also be passed on to the child through the milk. Eating a variety of foods, including spicy food can give the child a taste of what to expect later. Whatever spicy flavor is passed on through the milk is usually not objectionable to the child.
Fats are also an important to have in variety. It’s important to get different types of fats such as mono, poly, and saturated fats and fatty acids from food, including fish. Fish have , EPA, DHA, and omega-3 fatty acids that help aid in the development of the baby’s brain, eyes and other systems. These foods also benefit the mother to avoid postpartum depression.
Since regular pumping helps the mammary glands produce more milk, careful storage of the milk is necessary to prevent it from going rancid and becoming unusable. Bottles, the pump and hands should be washed before and after usage. Breast milk can be frozen, but to thaw it, warm water or a refrigerator is recommended for slower and more consistent thawing. Microwaves can thaw unevenly and cause scalding. Excess heat can also kill the beneficial bacteria contained within the milk destroying its nutritional value.
Human milk is without substitute in the mammalian world. It’s evolved with humans to provide human offspring with the best chance at survival. No infant formula or other mammal’s milk comes close to providing exactly what nutrients infants need when they need it. It has immunization improving functions that can help the child’s defense against disease. With those benefits there are costs and mothers should take into consideration a number of steps to avoid discomfort, and to help provide the best quality milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of the baby and continue until first year or longer as food is being introduced. Watch for signs indicating your baby is hungry: smacking his lips, suckling motions, sticking out his tongue, opening and closing the mouth and moving his head side to side as he was searching for the breast. Do not wait for him/her to cry for this is a late sign of hunger. Feed your baby between 2-3 hours interval during the day and 4 hours at night. She should be fed 8-12 times in the 24 hour cycle.
There are myths regarding breastfeeding. Some think that you can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding. Although, there are women that do not ovulate during breastfeeding, but it is not a reliable form of birth control. Some think that small breast do not produce enough milk. But breast size have nothing to do with the amount of milk production. Others believe that breastfeeding will make your breasts saggy or will change the shape of your breasts. Well, most women found that their breasts go back to its pre-pregnancy size after stopping breastfeeding. Breasts will always change in consistency after pregnancy. Factors like age, gravity and weight gain are some of the reasons of breasts size change. Sexual arousal is felt during breastfeeding. This is normal since the breast is stimulated which in fact is one of sexual activities. Additionally, the hormone oxytocin is released during breastfeeding which is also released during orgasm. Weaning should be done on the baby’s first birthday. It is really depends upon the mother and baby when to stop breastfeeding. It is a personal decision.