- Abraham Mathew Saji on the importance of breastfeeding a newborn.
As parents, we are willing to sacrifice all that we have to ensure the happiness, health and safety of our children. It is every mother’s wish that her newborn baby is happy and healthy forever. One of the biggest and most crucial decisions that a mother makes – very early in her child’s life – is that of breastfeeding her baby. This decision will go a long way to help both the baby and mother for the rest of their lives. Breast milk is a perfect blend of vitamins, minerals, proteins, antibodies and an array of other nutrients at the perfect temperature, ready for the baby to consume. It has been prepared personally by a mother, especially for her baby. Thus we see a happy, healthy and personal touch in the act of breastfeeding.
According to a World Health Organization (WHO) factsheet, nearly nine million children died in 2008 from preventable illnesses before even reaching their fifth birthday, with more than two thirds of them during the first year of life. Millions more survive only to face diminished lives, unable to develop to their full potential. Under-nutrition is a contributing cause of more than one third of these deaths. Poor nutrition during the mother’s pregnancy or the child’s first two years can slow a child’s mental and physical development for life.
According to the WHO and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), breastfeeding for at least six months can decrease worldwide infant morbidity and mortality rates (mainly due to diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and other infectious diseases) by at least 55 per cent.
Breast milk alone is the most ideal source of food and drink for an infant for the first six months of life. After six months, infants need other nutritious foods, in addition to breastfeeding up to two years and beyond, to meet their growth and development needs. Babies who are breastfed are generally healthier and achieve optimal growth and development.
If the vast majority of babies were exclusively fed breast milk in their first six months of life – meaning only breast milk and no other liquids or solids, not even water – it is estimated that the lives of at least 1.2 million children would be saved every year. If children continue to be breastfed up to two years and beyond, the health and development of millions of children would be greatly improved.
Infants who are not breastfed are at an increased risk of illness that can compromise their growth and raise the risk of death or disability. Breastfed babies receive protection from illness through their mothers’ milk. Breastfeeding is the natural and recommended way of feeding all infants, even when artificial feeding is affordable, clean water is available, and good hygienic conditions for preparing and feeding infant formula exist. Breastfeeding helps in the development of the baby’s jaw and helps in the overall oral structure, from the alignment of teeth and tongue to prevention of an over-crowded mouth.
A 2013 MRI study conducted at Brown University adds to growing body of evidence that breastfeeding improves brain and cognitive development in infants.
MECHANISM OF PROTECTION AND BENEFIT
As the immune system of a newborn is under-developed, mother’s milk provides protection against a wide variety of enteric and other diseases. Breast milk contains components that inhibit the attachment of microorganisms like streptococcus pneumoniae and Hemophilus influenzae to host cell surface receptors. Breast milk is also a rich source of colostrum.
Also referred to as “liquid gold” for its colour, it is the first perfect food prepared by a mother especially for the baby. It is easy for the newborn’s immature system to digest and it coasts the intestinal tract, thereby acting as a barrier to prevent the invasion of harmful microorganisms. It also provides important nutrients and antibodies.
Breast milk and colostrum are very potent and rich sources of immunogobulin A (lgA). These antibodies are produced by the mother when microbes, food or other antigenic material pass through her gut. lgA is secreted by the mammary and other exocrine glands during lactation. lgA helps prevent attachment of bacteria and viruses to the host epithelial cells, thereby preventing infection. lgA antibodies protect against vast array of microorganisms like vibrio cholerae, enterotoxic escherichia coli, campylobacter, shigella and giardia liamblia, to name a few common ones infecting infants.
In addition to lgA, breast milk is also rich in a variety of oligosaccharides. These complex sugars from human milk also help to prevent the attachment of microorganisms like streptococcus pneumoniae escherichia coli to the epithelial surface of host cell receptors.
Lactoferrin is another important constituent of breast milk. It is the main source of protein that not only acts as a source of nutrition, but also exhibits microbicidal activity against certain bacteria and viruses. It measures up to about 4 grams per liter of breast milk.
Other bioactive components of breast milk are B lymphocytes, T lymphocytes, immunoglobulin G (lgG), immunoglobulin M (lgM), neutrophils and eosinophils. These factors – transported in the baby’s body system via feeding – are absorbed and help to not just provide protection, but also share some of the immune responses from the mother to the child.
A gastrointestinal hormone, cholecystokinin (CCK) signals sedation and a feeling of satiation and well being. During breastfeeding, CCK release in both mother and baby produces a sense of satisfaction and sleepiness. The infant’s CCK level peaks after being breastfed, which enables the infant to be calm and rest comfortably.
The essential fatty acids in human milk optimise cognitive function and vision. Human milk has a significant impact on the growth of the central nervous system. Also, breastfed infants have higher visual acuity. These benefits of human milk can be attributed to the presence of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA).
Mothers need to be aware of the numerous benefits of breastfeeding to her baby and herself. The role of healthcare professionals and other support medical staff in this educational approach is deemed highly beneficial and significant.
BENEFITS THE MOTHER AND THE ENTIRE FAMILY
Breastfeeding enhances the release of oxytocin and prolactin (also called as bonding hormones) that help to relax the mother, enable smooth flow of milk and strengthen the bonding between mother and child. It helps the baby feel more comforted, secure and warm.
Frequent breastfeeding can delay the return of fertility through lactational amenorrhea. By this indirect method of spacing birth, it provides enough time for the mother to recuperate before she conceives again.
Breasfeeding also helps in the process of weight loss, keeping modern risks like diabetes, hypertension, obesity and associated cardiac diseases at bay. Mother can burn calories during lactation. The weight gained during pregnancy serves as the source of energy for lactation.
Breastfeeding plays a great role in reducing the risks of certain cancers. According to data derived from 47 epidemiological studies in 30 different countries, both pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women can expect a significant reduction in any risk of developing breast cancer with breastfeeding. In fact, the data also suggested that the risk of breast cancer decreases with ans increased duration of lifetime lactation and feeding. Breastfeeding also exhibits a protective effect againt uterine, ovarian, endometrial and thyroid cancers.
Breastfeeding helps to replenish the lost bone mineral density, thereby preventing osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Breastfeeding also enables the mother to get much-needed rest while she sits or lies down to feed her baby. She gets an opportunity to nurse and understand the needs of her baby.
Breastfeeding enables easy baby care in the sense that there are not bottles or accessories to be cleaned and maintained. Breastfeeding helps to save money, make travelling easy and reduce waste.
Upon hospital discharge it is not unusual for mothers to discontinue breastfeeding. Although for some mothers, this change may be beyond their ability and resources; for others it appears to be based on a conscious choice. Mothers need to be aware of the numerous benefits of breastfeeding to her baby and herself. The role of healthcare professionals and other support medical staff in this educational approach is deemed highly beneficial and significant.