How Breastfeeding Affects Babies' Health

November 13, 2019

Edú is a Mexican Research Professor and the Director of the Bachelor in Nutrition at Universidad del Istmo (UNSITMO). He is a PhD and Specialist in Education candidate, also he holds a MSc in Food and Nutrition Security and a BSc in Nutrition (UV (México), McGill University (Canada)).

Breastfeeding has been known to be the best means of providing nourishment for babies. The practice has been proven to ensure the health and survival of babies. It provides babies that affection which helps to create an emotional bond between the baby and the mother, while supplying all the essential nutrients the baby needs for normal growth.

The topic of breastfeeding is of great importance mainly for mothers who are new to the practice and supportive partners who would want to ensure the comfort of the mothers and see to it that their babies have the right nutrition. This article, the first of our new category: Infant & Toddler Nutrition, explains the importance of breastfeeding, how it affects the baby’s development and highlights foods mothers who do not produce enough breast milk can eat to help them produce more.

Why breastmilk?

Breast milk is considered the most complete food, since it has all the essential nutrients needed to meet the nutritional needs of a baby. Babies need a lot of nutrients in the first year of their lives than they would ever need at any other stage of their lives. This is because within that period, their body needs nutrients to help their brains fully develop, create energy, keep their skin and hair healthy, build strong bones and teeth as well as protect them from infections.

Breast milk contains water, carbohydrates, fats and proteins that will allow the baby to quench their thirst and promote healthy weight gain. This will help the baby to grow properly and develop to their full potential. Breast milk is also rich in vitamins and minerals that are responsible for the proper use of the carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

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Further, breastmilk contains other components that promote the health of the baby beyond the benefits the nutrients mentioned above offer. One of these components is lactoferrin. Lactoferrin plays an important role in boosting the immune system (the system in the body that fights infections) and also protects the baby from iron deficiency (anaemia). Another component of breastmilk that promotes proper growth and development of the baby is taurine. Taurine is an essential amino acid for babies; their bodies cannot make enough quantities as they need. However, the body of adults can make enough taurine so it is not an essential nutrient for adults. Taurine helps the brain to function properly and could prevent attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD for short; a condition in which a person has problem paying attention or short attention span, learning disability and hyperactivity). Breast milk contains far more taurine than cow milk (the main ingredient of infant formula), one of the main reasons why exclusive breastfeeding is important; to protect babies from ADHD.

A baby feeding from a bottle

Is exclusive breastfeeding really necessary?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exclusive breastfeeding means feeding the infant with only breast milk. Exclusive breastfeeding requires that the infant is fed no other liquids or solids, not even water. However, while exclusively feeding the infant with breast milk, the infant can be given oral rehydration solution, drops/syrups of vitamins and minerals or medicines, as and when needed.

Breast milk is the only food that can provide protection and foster the development of the infant in the way the infant is supposed to grow. The reason for this is that breast milk is custom-made by each mother to meet the nutritional needs of her baby. With time, as the baby’s nutritional needs of the child changes, the breast milk produced by the mother also changes in its nutritional composition to meet the child’s needs.

It is recommended that the baby is fed only breast milk for the first six months of the baby’s life in order to achieve optimal growth, development and health. After the first six months, to be able to meet the changing nutritional needs of the baby, other foods that are nutritionally adequate and safe should be introduced into the baby’s diet while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years.

What if I don’t produce enough breast milk?

There are a host of factors that can contribute to insufficient breast milk production. Some of the main factors are waiting too long to start breastfeed, not breastfeeding often enough and the use of some medications. It is important adopt better breastfeeding practices like starting to breastfeed within an hour after birth and breastfeeding often to ensure consistent breast milk production. Apart from these factors, others like premature birth, maternal obesity and pregnancy-induced high blood pressure can also affect the quantity of breastmilk produced.

A baby breastfeeding

In spite of these factors, there is no doubt that the diet of the mother before and after birth affects the components of breast milk. Studies have shown that the mother’s consumption of fish and vitamin C leads to an increase in the concentration of healthy fats and vitamin C in the breast milk, which are beneficial for the baby.

For mothers who do not produce enough breast milk, are there foods one can eat to increase breast milk production? While some mothers eat various foods with the believe of promoting breast milk production, research has shown that a group of chemicals called galactagogues is able to boost breastmilk production. Foods that have been described as galactagogues (the breastmilk production booster) include moringa, pawpaw, garlic, dark leafy green vegetables (such as kontomire, spinach, gboma leaves also called African eggplant leaves, alfafa, kale, broccoli) almond and spices like ginger, fennel seeds, anise seeds and turmeric.

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Further, it is recommended that the mother eats a balanced, adequate and varied diet. This will contribute to the nutritional composition of the breast milk which will consequently contribute to the proper growth and development of the baby.

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In summary, breast milk contains all the essential nutrients needed for the proper growth and development of the baby, hence, it is very important for the baby to be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months. For mothers who do not produce enough breast milk, foods that are described as galactagogues can help boost breast milk production.

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