Breastfeeding is a free source of nutrition, convenient with no mixing or warming, and one of the best sources of nutrition for infants. The US Dietary Guidelines recommend breastfeeding for six months exclusively, then an additional six months while adding in complementary foods. Breastfeeding is not an easy task for moms, but it does come with so many more benefits over feeding infant formula. As such, breastfeeding is the number one food for baby and is recommended by healthcare providers to parents.
Different types of breast milk
There are three different phases of breast milk: the colostrum, transitional milk, and mature milk. Colostrum is often described as liquid gold is the first phase of breast milk. It contains antibodies, growth factor, and coats the stomach and GI tract to protect against infection. It can even act as a laxative to help babies pass meconium, which is babies’ first stool. Colostrum is high in protein and vitamins A, B12, and K.
Two to five days post-delivery, transitional milk takes over for about two weeks. Transitional milk has a higher fat content and is higher in calories than colostrum. This ensures that the baby has enough calories during this rapid phase of growth.
The last phase of breast milk is mature milk. The main component of mature milk is water to ensure that your baby is adequately hydrated. Mature milk’s nutritional content remains consistent. Breast milk helps to improve tolerance of nutrition by decreasing diarrhea, gastrointestinal reflux, and gastroenteritis.
Bonus ingredients found in breast milk
Breast milk is not only the best nutritional source for growing infants, but it contains non-nutritive components such as hormones, immune cells, and transporters to help improve the absorption of nutrients. A mother’s breast milk contains white blood cells and human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs). HMOs are not broken down by digestive enzymes and travel all the way to the gut to act as a prebiotic. HMOs help to feed the good bacteria in the gut and aid in developing an infant’s immune system.
Likewise, proteins in breast milk, such as lactoferrin and interleukin-6, -8 and -10, work with the body’s inflammatory response. They ensure the body can fight infections without causing excessive inflammation.
Infants who are breastfed receive life-long health benefits. Research has shown that breastfed infants have lower rates of asthma, childhood leukemia, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, respiratory diseases, ear infections and inflammatory diseases. Breastfeeding also provides more opportunities for skin-to-skin contact, which increases oxytocin levels. This helps the mother and infant bond and increases feelings of calm and attachment for the baby. Children and teenagers who are fed breast milk in infancy have higher intelligence scores. Breastfed children even have better vision and lower rates of illness and hospitalization throughout their lives.
Health care professionals such as pediatricians, nurses, and registered dietitians should continue to advocate for breastfeeding whenever possible and support hospital-led breastfeeding protocols.
Sara O’Brien, MS, RDN, is the Regional Access Manager for Nutricia North America. Previously she worked as a pediatric dietitian and clinical nutrition manager in both outpatient and acute care settings. She completed a combined bachelor’s degree and dietetic internship at the University of Connecticut and a Master’s Degree in Dietetics at the University of Rhode Island. Sara is a specialist in pediatric nutrition and believes in an individualized patient-focused approach to nutrition.
If you have more questions about breastfeeding or your child’s nutrition, it’s always a great idea to speak with a registered dietitian. Registered dietitians are the only credentialed experts qualified to address your unique health questions. Email us at email@example.com to request a direct consultation with a dietitian today!
Eidelman AI, Schanler RJ, Johnston M, et al. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics.2012;129(3):e827–e841.