From the Stone Age until just a few generations ago, human infants’ only sustenance was mother’s milk, but modern infant formula seems to be an adequate substitute. After all, infant mortality in Western societies is at historic lows and growth patterns are normal. But is that all there is to it? Could there be other advantages to breastfeeding, both to the mother and to the infant?
Post-delivery stress discomfort. All those hours of labor may be natural, but they are exhausting and stressful for mom. It’s not so easy on baby, either! First, that cushion of fluid suddenly vanishes in a big gush as labor begins. Then comes the big squeeze as the infant is mashed against the opening of the uterus, and through a birth canal that is so narrow that the baby’s skull elongates just to fit through. It takes a day or so before a newborn’s head gets its normal rounded shape back.
Enter endorphins, morphine-like hormones that the body produces, and that relieve pain and stress. Beta endorphin appears in the early milk (colostrum) of mothers who deliver naturally, but there is much less in the breastmilk of mothers who undergo Caesarian section, and who bypass a stressful labor. Even higher levels appear in the colostrum of those mothers who deliver prematurely, and whose infants might have undergone even more stress before and during delivery. Nature thus helps to make the transition from the cozy, quiet womb to the outside world a little easier.
Baby’s suckling helps healing. After a successful delivery, the new mother feels the continued contractions of her uterus as it begins to return to normal size. That shrinking is critical in reducing blood loss after separation of the placenta. The baby that is put to the breast during the first hour or two gets nothing but a few drops of colostrum for its effort, but sucking on the empty breast increases the contraction of the now-empty uterus. That helps to limit the mother’s blood loss, and it could have been a critical factor in primitive humans.
A breast has to grow up. A woman that has never been pregnant may think that her normal-appearing breasts are fully mature, but from a biological point of view, they are not. The normal cycle of breast development begins with adolescent budding, but it does not end until the breast secretes at least some milk. During that interval, especially during the adolescent years, breast tissue is susceptible to toxic agents. That might explain two observations about breast cancer. First, women who smoke during their teen years have a greater risk of breast cancer than those that do not. Second, women who breastfeed are less likely to develop breast cancer, at least in their premenopausal years, as well as ovarian cancer.
Infant formula: how boring! The can of infant formula that Dad plucks off the supermarket shelf on the day of baby’s birth contains exactly the same ingredients as the formula that the infant will receive 2 weeks, 2 months or 12 months later (unless Dad switches brands). That’s not so for breastmilk. Colostrum contains antibodies and live cells that will protect the newborn from infection and help to develop its immune system. Day by day the mother will notice that her breastmilk becomes thinner and more bluish, until by 6 weeks it becomes consistently the same in appearance. Actually, the composition of breastmilk changes every single day until weaning occurs. That’s because the baby’s developing body, especially the brain, has different requirements every day. There are hundreds of components of breastmilk that vary according to the growing infant’s needs, in a sequence that was laid down by Nature hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Thanks, Mom. That was delicious! You won’t find mint-flavored infant formula at the local market, or any with a distinctive flavor. That would never get past the folks at Quality Control. But mother’s milk reflects mother’s diet. In years past, pediatricians advised breastfeeding mothers to avoid onions, garlic or spicy, highly flavored foods. That was the wrong advice, and I was guilty of it. Babies that are exposed to a variety of flavors that come through mothers’ milk take more readily to solid foods than formula-fed infants, for whom every food flavor is new and strange. Think of all the mealtime fussiness that would avoid!
And it will make you feel better. During the first year following delivery, mothers who breastfeed are only half as likely to suffer from depression as those who do not nurse their infants. That is not a minor issue, because approximately 10 percent of women become depressed within the first 6 weeks of delivery. This mental boost may be due to a hormone called oxytocin, which is released during nursing and also causes those contractions of the uterus that I mentioned earlier.
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