The Importance of BreastmilkBy Amelia H. Psmythe
The US DHHS National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign tells us “Babies were born to be breastfedi”. Leading health organizations like UNICEFii, the World Health Organizationiii and the American Academy of Pediatricsiv, recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, introduction of appropriate solids with continuation of breastmilk for at least the first year, and as long thereafter as is mutually desired. The recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months is key and here’s why.
Digestive tract functionality takes many months to mature. At birth there are “open junctures” in the lining of the intestinal track – like a leaky hose – designed as such to allow breastmilk protein to pass directly into the baby’s bloodstream, where it can nourish the baby’s brain and developing body. Additionally, a particulate in breast milk known as Immunoglobulin A has the specific job of closing and sealing these open junctions to prepare the individual for a lifetime of healthy, robust digestion. It takes about six months for that process to complete, hence the six-month exclusive breastfeeding recommendation.
So what happens when other foods are introduced into this immature system? Most artificial infant formulas are made from cow and soy protein. Cow protein is made for growing baby calves, who don’t need brain so much as muscle. Soy protein is made to blow in the wind – not provide vital, species-specific nourishment for human brain or muscle. If cow or soy protein passes directly into the baby’s blood stream through the “leaky hose”, immunological confusion follows.
Without a steady diet of Immunoglobulin A particulate in human milk, the open junctions do not fully seal, predisposing the individual to digestive upset or other illness. Without them, early contacts with foreign protein are more likely and the infant’s immune system cannot distinguish between food and a harmful pathogen. It then responds inappropriately to the threat of “food” and –perhaps mistaking those for pathogens--eventually creates excessive metabolic toxins. It is this toxicity that then manifests as common complaints, such as eczema, ear infections and allergic reactions. Without that early ground work of exclusive breastfeeding, the immunological terrain Dr. Erin writes about on this website, cannot be properly prepared for a lifetime of meeting and responding to pathogens. Hence, the increased risk of recurrent otitis, severe diarrhea, hospitalizations for respiratory illness, asthma, allergies and even death (from SIDS, among other things) among infants who are fed formula in the first six months of life.
Simply put, there is no substitute for mother’s milk. The biologic expectation is that development begun in the womb will be continued after birth and completed several years later through a phase where the diet is exclusively breastmilk.
Aligning the larger culture to support exclusive breastfeeding is the work of advocates and public health officials the world over. In the meanwhile, families will be well advised to work with physicians who support breastfeeding for its physical and emotional contributions to well being.