BREAST milk is a thing of beauty! Generally, babies are breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, and there’s a reason why it is considered the best source of nutrition for the infant.
Years of research to understand everything about breast milk shows that it is still a mystery and that it is much more than nutrition. In humans and other mammals, researchers have found that milk composition changes depending on the infant’s gender and age of the baby.
Dr Sylvester Igbedioh, the technical advisor of IYCF/Nutrition, Alive & Thrive, a project of FHI 360, stated that breast milk is a crucial food for children’s health and development during this critical window.
According to him, “It provides all of the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and antibodies that children need to grow and thrive in the first six months of life, and continues to be a pivotal part of their diet up to the age of two or beyond.
“Breast milk is safe: it is always the right temperature, requires no preparation, and is available even in environments with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water.
“Breastfeeding also supports healthy brain development, higher educational achievement, and lowers the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes later in life.”
Amazingly, the composition of breast milk changes as the baby develops to continually ensure optimal nutrition is provided. “Nutrient in breast milk is baby specific for the age; that is what makes it the best food for an infant.
“The nutrient in the breast milk of a mother who has a two-month-old baby is just perfect for that baby. It progresses until the baby becomes six months when the baby will require extra nutrients to sustain his growth and development,” said Dr Igbedioh.
Recent studies show that breast milk in various mammalian species may be tailored for the s3x of each offspring to facilitate their health, growth and development most efficiently.
For example, macaque mothers produced richer milk for sons than for daughters, especially those with their first babies, but at the same time providing greater quantities of milk and higher concentrations of calcium for daughters than for sons.
In addition, cows produced more milk when they are pregnant with a female foetus than when they are pregnant with a male foetus. In contrast, Iberian red deer mothers produced more milk for sons than for daughters.
Experimental studies with mothers both in Massachusetts and Singapore showed that they also produced higher-quality milk, with greater energy, lipids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, phospholipids, and gangliosides, for sons than for daughters.
In the 2010 study, published in the American Journal of Human Biology, Massachusetts mothers with male infants aged 2 to 5 months produced milk that had 25 per cent greater energy content than mothers of female infants.
Researchers at Michigan State University and other institutions in 2012 also published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that among 72 mothers in rural Kenya, women with sons generally gave richer milk (2.8 per cent fat compared with 1.74 per cent for daughters).
Fats are a very important component of breast milk, which not only supplies energy but also aid in the central nervous system’s development. Also, fat provides aroma and taste for baby.
Studies have even shown that the composition of breast milk changes as the baby develops to continually ensure optimal nutrition is provided.
Breast milk composition in nutrient content and mineral content also varies over the lactation period and during a single feed to meet the child’s individual and varying appetite and thirst at every point in time, corroborated Dr James Oloyede, Director, Nutrition services and education, State Primary healthcare board, Osun State.
The first milk that is expressed is called the foremilk, and it has a thinner consistency along with a higher content of lactose to satisfy baby’s thirst. This is followed by the creamier hindmilk which is higher in fat content.
He declared that the energy content of breast milk can vary in and between individuals from 270 and 315 kJ per 100mL largely due to the variation in their fat content
Dr Oloyede stated that unlike artificial formula, fatty acids in breastmilk are essential for brain development, and amino acids for central nervous system development, adding that all these are lacking in good proportion in formula milk.
Also, calcium and iron in formula milk are not in the correct proportions that are easily absorbed unlike in breast milk. Equally, between 50 to 75 per cent of the iron content of breast milk is easily absorbed compared to 5 to 10 per cent from formula milk.
What is more, experts say that other factors may also influence changes in breast milk composition. Several factors like time of day, influence breast milk composition, and in general fat seems to change the most. In addition, other factors that play a role include baby’s birth weight, mother’s diet, stage of nursing and time since the last feeding.
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