"The mother's milk is the natural food, and nothing can fully take its place."
-- Jefferis GG, Nichols JL.
The Household Guide or Domestic Cyclopedia, Home Remedies for Man and Beast, 1894
The number one reason most women nurse is for the health of their child. Breast milk builds not only stronger babies, but its effects carry through to childhood and adulthood. Babies who are nursed suffer less often from infections, allergies, colic and diarrhea. Breast feeding helps offset obesity and enhance intelligence. Necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious condition among newborns, is six times more common among infants fed only formula. Below is just some of the research on how human milk helps the human child.
The Perfect Food
The most convincing argument for breast feeding a baby is human milk is the perfect food for infants. There is so much we don't understand about the complexities of mother's milk, that it's impossible for any formula to live up to it. The nutrients found in each woman's milk vary. The age and health of a mother can affect her milk. This is why it's so important to eat well while nursing your baby. However, breast milk composition also changes throughout the day and as a baby grows. For example, a mother with a premature infant has different milk, more suited for her child's unique needs, than a woman who gives birth to a full-term baby. Formula can never reproduce this made-to-order quality of mother's milk.
As scientists have dissected breast milk into its individual vitamins and minerals and compared it to cow's milk, they've pointed to breast milk's inadequacies. Levels of zinc and iron are much lower in breast milk, for instance. However, these minerals are also absorbed better by babies when taken in human milk.
The nutritional superiority of breast milk is especially apparent in developing countries where good food isn't as readily available as in the United States. For example, babies in the Chinese province of Hubei are taller and weigh more the longer they were breast fed. In fact, it can be said that nursed children are healthier in general, suffering less often from allergies, eczema, upper and lower respiratory infections, diarrhea, skin disorders and most other illnesses.
The Immunity Advantage
Breast fed babies have a health advantage over those given formula because of the immunity factors in human milk. Some researchers have gone so far as to call the human mammary gland or breast, an immunologic organ. It's like Mother Nature guards her newborns with an infection-fighting elixir designed to safely carry them through the first few years of life.
So far, scientists have divided the not-completely-understood agents of human milk into three categories:
The antimicrobials, or germ fighters, are important because of the viruses, bacteria, fungi and other bugs they battle. Besides protecting babies against Salmonella, E. coli, Candida, giardia and botulism, to name a few, breast milk also shields infants from the diseases we fear most: polio, Haemophilus influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus.
- Germ fighters
- Inflammation Soothers
- Immune System Enhancers
Aside from antimicrobials, there are substances in breast milk whose main job is easing inflammation. While these agents don't kill germs, they do decrease the redness, heat, swelling and pain seen in some infections such as otitis media or middle ear infection.