Breast milk offers a complete balanced meal as it contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins minerals and all the water your baby needs. In addition, breast milk contains antibodies that are not found in any infant formula, food or drink. These antibodies are biological compounds, produced by the mother’s immune system, which means they cannot be artificially made.
“Breast milk is referred to by some as ‘Liquid Gold’ for this reason," Catherine Pereira Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson, registered dietitian and lecturer at the University of the Western Cape, told Health24. "It is definitely the ‘Gold Standard’ for feeding babies and young children."
In fact, breastfeeding can be life-saving too, and according to a journal in The Lancet, “Improved breastfeeding practices would prevent 823 000 annual deaths in children younger than five years of age.”
Optimal infant and young child feeding is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF as “the early initiation of breastfeeding (within one hour of birth); exclusive breastfeeding until six months; and then the introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at six months together with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond”.
"There is more and more research being done, and new components of breast milk are being discovered that just continue to prove its benefits in terms of health and development, as well as the prevention of disease and death for the baby. However, the benefits don’t only last while the child is being breastfed but is has been shown that the child later on in life, and that same baby as an adult will have a reduced risk of developing non-communicable diseases and obesity, for example,” says Pereira.
5 benefits of breastfeeding
While there are health benefits to a breastfeeding mom, there are also numerous benefits to the baby. Pereira shares these five:
1. Breast milk is nutritionally complete, which means it contains all the nutrients and water a baby needs for their first six months of life. "Breast milk can never be under or over diluted," says Pereira.
2. Breastfeeding also has psychological advantages. "It allows for increased bonding between the mother and baby," says Pereira. "The infant feels safe, warm and protected because there is more skin-to-skin contact between the mother and baby during breastfeeding." Skin-to-skin contact has many advantages for the mother and baby. According to UNICEF, it calms and relaxes both the mother and baby; it helps regulate the baby’s heart rate and breathing; and it helps the baby to adapt to life outside the womb. Breastfeeding also stimulates the release of hormones that support breastfeeding.
"For me, the benefit to my emotional health far outweighed the physical health benefits. Being able to bond with all my children during the time I breastfed was special. I also have a family history of breast cancer and breastfeeding has been shown to lower one’s risk of breast cancer," Maryke Gallagher, mother of three, ADSA spokesperson and registered dietitian, previously told Health24.
3. "Breast milk is more economical than formula, which means the mother would have more money available to pay for all the other costs associated with having a newborn baby, such as nappies and clothes," says Pereira. She adds that if mothers or caregivers cannot afford sufficient infant formula, they will often over-dilute the formula to help it last longer, which means it contains fewer nutrients and can cause malnutrition. Other sub-optimal feeding practices include giving porridge or tea too early. "Breastfeeding therefore assists to prevent malnutrition."
4. Babies are seldom allergic to their own mother’s milk. In addition, breastfed babies are less likely to develop food allergies later in life.
5. Breastfed babies get sick less often and have a reduced risk of developing infections due to the antibodies in breast milk. "Unfortunately infant formula carries a high risk of becoming contaminated with bacteria, especially when prepared in conditions where safe water and hygiene are not guaranteed," says Pereira.
If mothers start to introduce infant formula or other foods and drinks to the baby too early while breastfeeding, their breast milk production will decrease. This is because the baby would be feeding less often at the breast if they were provided with foods or drinks other than breast milk.
Breast-milk production operates on a supply and demand basis. Each time a baby breastfeeds, specific reflexes in the mother’s body ensure that certain hormones are produced which in turn stimulate the production of milk for the next feed. Therefore, the more often a baby feeds, the more milk will be produced. Babies need to feed often because their tummies are small and they are growing at a rapid rate, so they very quickly use up all of the energy and nutrients that they consume.
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