Breastmilk – What’s in it? How it Helps Your Baby for a Lifetime, and Baby’s Cues that They’re Ready for Solids

My former assistant and student, Gina Rogers, wrote a fascinating article on breastmilk for National Breastfeeding Month that I thought was highly informative and wanted to share with you! 

She writes…..

We received a message from one of our friends on Facebook asking us if we would like to work together to promote National Breastfeeding Month! As we support breastfeeding whenever it’s possible (we do understand that in some cases it’s not possible, and we fully support moms no matter what), we wanted to write an informational blog on mother’s milk itself, and its role in the postpartum journey, human health, and its influence worldwide. National Breastfeeding Month is a month dedicated to spreading the word on the importance of nursing your baby. And of course, as we here like to promote natural care in support of the pregnancy and postpartum/lactation journey, we happily joined in!  We have been making herbal products in support of all areas of lactation for milk supply (high or low), nipple care, mastitis, tummy health, to weaning. If you have made it this far as reading one of our articles, chances are you are also in support of this movement, and possibly would like to know more information on breastfeeding, or are looking for natural products to help with your lactation! 

“Why is breastfeeding your baby so important?” you may be asking yourself…The answer reaches far and wide into how mama’s milk is the foundation for the healthy development of newborns (especially), infants, and toddlers alike. 

So let’s talk about what is in breast milk! Mama’s milk is the perfect food for your baby, and since as Dr. William Sears so nicely puts it, “to nourish and protect is the nutritional goal of every mother”.

Fat:  Breast milk contains the perfect amount of the right kinds of fats for baby’s caloric needs as well as healthy development of the brain and other tissues. It also contains an enzyme, lipase, which helps digest fat so that more gets into the baby and less in the stools. Since the baby is still developing his/her ability to break down nutrition, this enzyme is of utmost importance for efficient nutrition intake of healthy fat. Cow’s milk and formulas do not contain this enzyme, so more of the fat content passes into the stool. The amount of fat provided by mama’s milk changes during each feed, increasing until the baby gets the “cream/hindmilk”. And baby will let you know when he/she is content and full. The amount of fat provided lessens as time goes on, to prepare for the introduction of solid foods. Breast milk is nutritionally complete for at least the first year of life. This means that infants can go for at least a year on breast milk alone, without eating any foods and be nutritionally complete. Breast milk also contains good cholesterol, which promotes rapid brain growth in the time where baby’s development is so fragile, hormone components, vitamin D, and intestinal bile. Cow’s milk and formula are severely lacking in cholesterol. 

Proteins:  It is fascinating how important these are. These are the building blocks for growth, and since babies grow faster in the first year than any other stage of life, good proteins from mama’s milk are essential for a healthy foundation for healthy tissue development and are designed perfectly for infant growth. Two kinds of proteins are contained in milk…. whey and casein.  Whey is a gentle protein that is easy to digest by baby and friendly to intestines. Casein is the curd protein, and harder to digest. Breast milk contains mostly whey… cow’s milk and formula the opposite. What is so fascinating about this, is that infants’ intestines are continuing to develop during the first six months especially, and are very porous.  If any harmful proteins go into the intestinal tract, they could easily leak into the bloodstream. These are called allergens or allergenic proteins. At about 6 months, the lining begins to start closing up, but is still vulnerable.  So, by introducing anything besides mama’s milk, it could leave baby vulnerable to absorbing harmful proteins potentially in cow’s milk, formula, or solid foods until the lining closes up or closure occurs.  Also, it contains taurinewhich may enhance the development of the brain and nervous system, lactoferrin, unique to breastmilk, acting to carry iron directly into babies’ blood and helps regulate healthy and non-healthy gut bacteria.  Having high healthy gut bacteria increases vitamin production, improves digestion, and decreases toxic condition for things like candida to grow.  Also present are lysosomes, which are another antibacterial protein, and nucleotides, which help to develop strong tissue, as well as promoting intestinal villi that absorb nutrients. WOW!!!!

Lactose (sugar) Human breast milk contains more lactose than any other mammal. Lactose is vital to healthy brain and nervous system development, increases calcium absorption, and promotes the growth of useful intestinal bacteria, Lactobacillus Bifidus

Immunity:  During the first 6 months of life, a baby’s immune system is immature (deficient in antibodies). Mama’s milk is loaded with white blood cells, which eat up all the bad bacteria in the baby’s intestines. They are most plentiful during the early weeks of a baby’s life but remain present into at least 6 months postpartum. The white blood cells also act as transporters of enzymes, growth factors, and infection-fighting proteins called immunoglobulins. These are the antibodies babies need until they develop their own. Colostrum is the first milk produced after birth and is the highest in white blood cells and immunoglobulins.  And this comes at a time when the baby’s immune system is at its lowest and most vulnerable to infection. As we said before, the intestinal lining is very porous, allowing more toxic substances into the bloodstream of a newborn/infant. If anything should get through, it is important for the immune system to be prepared to act. Another amazing thing that occurs is that mama transfers her unique antibodies directly into baby through nursing. This means that as mama develops antibodies to fight the germs in her unique environment, with the use of her strong developed immune system, the baby receives those exact antibodies that are also unique to his/her germ environment. As the baby develops and grows, mama’s milk makes less and less of these immune boosters, allowing the baby to develop on their own, but still provides a healthy immune supplement for as long as nursing goes on. 

There are many more nuances, but this complex system is designed perfectly for the formation of healthy tissue, brain development, gut flora, and provides the foundation for a human’s lifetime of immunity. 

When is a baby ready for solid foods? As with everything, each baby is unique, and there are no hard and fast rules, but the general rule is to listen to baby. There are many myths about the baby not getting enough nutrition from mama’s milk around 4-6 months (which has been debunked). Mama’s milk is a perfect food at least for the first year. Again take into account the intestinal lining development timeline. Babies should really only get mama’s milk until that closure of the intestinal lining has happened. And baby will let you know.  If he/she is accepting solid food (or trying to reach for yours), then that is the sign you are looking for.  The intelligence of the human body is very communicative in babies if we will only listen and take notice. The baby will let you know when his/her intestines are ready by reaching for your food as you’re eating and accepting it when its offered.

The other issue is using solid food to help with sleeping through the night.  A baby is not ready to sleep through the night until he/she no longer NEEDS the nutrition from mama’s breast milk. And, by nursing at night, it keeps a healthy milk supply going for adequate overall production. Milk production works on a supply and demand chainIf you try to make a baby sleep through the night too soon, breast milk supply goes down overall, and baby will not get enough breastmilk nutrition. 

This incredible article on articulates this point so well….

“All mammals are protected by the same thing – they can’t physically eat food until they are physiologically ready to digest it. For humans this means picking up the food, placing it in their mouth, gumming it, moving it back with their tongue, and swallowing it. The most obvious of course it the tongue thrust that newborns have – this reflex actively keeps food out of their body until they can digest it. But the other steps all have safeguards as well.

For healthy, full-term infants, the ability to eat food develops around 6-9 months. In recent years there have been numerous studies looking at the risks of certain things (allergies, asthma, anemia, etc) in relation to when solids are started and almost all have shown that the lowest risks are when solids are started between 6-9 months.

However it should also be noted that babies with allergies may refuse solids for up to a year, and that breastmilk is nutritionally complete for at least the first year of life despite earlier statements that it is not. An unpleasant feeling in the mouth is often a first sign of allergy and may cause babies to spit out rather than swallow allergenic foods. This is a very useful safeguard that should not be overridden.”

What is the point of National Breast Feeding Awareness Month?? 

To spread the awareness of why it is so important to breastfeed. Aside from the nutritional benefits for baby and mama… There is a national debt issue.

“In 2001, the USDA concluded that if breastfeeding rates were increased to 75 percent at birth and 50 percent at six months, it would lead to a national government savings of a minimum of $3.6 billion. This amount was easily an underestimation since it represents savings in the treatment of only three of the dozens of illnesses proven to be decreased by breastfeeding: ear infections, gastroenteritis, and necrotizing enterocolitis.

“Choosing to give your baby formula results in an increased risk for ear infections, for diabetes, for leukemia and so on. We as a nation need to understand that it is not that breastfeeding lowers the rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), but that choosing to feed an infant formula increases his risk of sudden infant death syndrome,” said Stacy Kucharczk, a certified lactation consultant and pediatric nurse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 breastfeeding report card found that since 2000, breastfeeding of newborns has increased from 64 to 74 percent, and from 29 to 43 percent at six months. However, at one year, only 21 percent of babies continue to be breastfed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least one year. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years.

The AAP says each formula-fed infant costs the healthcare system between $331 and $475 more than a breastfed baby in its first year of life. The cost of treating respiratory viruses resulting from not breastfeeding is $225 million a year.”

In Conclusion:

We could not include every possible positive aspect of choosing breastfeeding over supplemented milk, but we hope this outline of points sends you in the right direction of researching this topic further on your own. And as always, the health of mama is of equal importance and there are always exceptions to the rule. We are surely grateful for milk supplementation when necessary! Some of you may not also be aware that there are milk banks available to mamas who’s milk is scant or contaminated, or they cannot breastfeed for any reason.

Here are some resources to guide you further with excellent articles on health info and resources near you, including rights in the workplace, and so on. – La Leche League is an international resource for breastfeeding support. – A resource for California residents! – an excellent article on the topic! – a more global look into the movement!

How we can assist you!!!  Herb Lore’s Lactation Support Products!!

As you may know, lactation support is one of the main categories of organic herbal products that we provide. We carry products to support all areas of lactation, including low milk supply, too much milk supply, and mastitis (breast infection). And as always, we are a vast resource for information on all things pregnancy/postpartum/lactation. Go to our Articles and Information Page to see the information available to you!

For increasing milk supply: 
Nursing Tea,  Nursing Tincture,  Fenugreek Tincture,  Moringa Tincture,  Shatavari Tincture, Blessed Thistle Tincture

Dosage suggestions and which of these products are best for your situation:  
How to Increase Your Breastmilk Production 

For over-production, decreasing milk supply or weaning: 
Sage TinctureSage Tea

For mastitis: 
Poke Root –  please see this link for specific instructions for use. 

For nipple care: 
Healing Salve

General health for nursing mamas: 
Nursing Mother’s Liver Tonic, Iron Tonic TinctureShatavari Tincture, Moringa Tincture

Tummy TinctureFennel Tincture, Ease the Quease Tincture

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this article. We are in full support of National Breastfeeding Month!!!

Much love to happy babies, mamas, and papas out there!

— Written by Gina Rogers, doula, herbalist, student and former assistant to Pam Caldwell