Table of Contents
Of breast milk and other important things about breastfeeding
Breastfeeding has always been an important and controversial topic. It is important because it accounts for the first form of nutrition that a newborn gets, and controversial because the optimal duration of the breastfeeding period, the use of substitutes for breast milk and the action of breastfeeding are still issues that are not well defined and are sensitive for some groups of the population. We will stick to facts and explain here what the composition of human milk is, how long should the lactating period last, according to experts, and the benefits of breastfeeding but also, the alternatives that are available for women that are not able or decide not to breastfeed.
Human milk at different stages
Human milk composition varies depending on the growth stage of the baby. Right after birth, the first fluid that the breast glands produce is known as calostrum.
For example, it contains immunoglobulins or antibodies, which are molecules that attach to microbes and flag them in order for the immune cells, which are also present in high quantities in breast milk, can kill them. Lactose is present in less amount, though, indicating that the main role of calostrum in the first days of the baby’s life is to provide him or her with a strong army that can hold any bacteria, virus or fungus that could cause harm.
Transitional milk comes after calostrum, just a couple of days after giving birth.
After six weeks, milk is no longer transitional and is considered to be fully mature. From this point on, the composition of breast milk barely changes; however, it can be affected by certain factors, including the nutritional state of the mother.
What does human milk provide to the baby?
Nutrients present in human milk are classified into macro and micronutrients. The first ones comprise for the carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
Micronutrients refer to vitamins and minerals. Vitamins present in human milk include vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, D. Vitamin K is present in very low quantities in breast milk, as well as vitamin D, which is why women are advised to take vitamin supplements during pregnancy and the breastfeeding period, to compensate for the natural lack of them in their milk.
Growth factors are very important for the maturation of the baby’s organs, especially the intestine, the veins and arteries and the nervous and endocrine systems.
Immunological factors, as its name indicates, are involved in the development of the baby’s immune system. In order for the immune system to start working properly, it has to be exposed to all the allergens that are present in the environment: in what we eat, in what we wear, in what we breathe, smell and touch. Allergens are molecules that activate the immune cells and give them the chance to recognize threats and get well equipped to attack them.
This is why breast milk is enriched with immunological factors that the mom passes to the baby through breastfeeding, including immune cells, substances that activate these cells, known as cytokines and chemokines, and antibodies. These factors protect the baby from infections, which mainly affect the gastrointestinal tract, and from inflammation.