Breastmilk or mother’s milk is produced in humans by the mammary glands located in the breast of the human female. This milk is particularly produced after the woman gives birth to her child. It is the nature’s gift to provide the primary source of nutrition for newborn babies. A baby can be exclusively be given breastmilk for up to six months of age, if the mother is able to produce enough. Beyond six months, it is essential to introduce solid foods, in a gradual manner. The breastmilk can be given up to the age of 2 years or so, as a primary or supplementary source of food and nutrition.
A normally born newborn baby is also equipped with sucking and swallowing reflex. When the cheek of the baby is touched, the head turns towards that cheek, along with tongue and mouth starting with sucking movements. This is called sucking reflex. So, a new-mother can just touch the tip of her nipple on the baby’s cheek for the baby’s head to turn towards the breast to suckle and express the milk into its mouth. Further, swallowing reflex also sets in, for the baby to swallow this milk.
Production of breastmilk:
Prolactin and oxytocin are the two hormones that are released after the birth of the baby, to aid in the production of the breastmilk. The first milk is called colostrum and contains immunoglobulin IgA, which coats the gastrointestinal tract. This arrangement is to provide immunity to the baby until it develops its own immune system. Colostrum also works to expel meconium, the first feces of the baby that contains excessive amount of bilirubin, which may cause jaundice.
Composition of breastmilk:
The composition of breastmilk varies across the period of feeding. Breastmilk, in general contains complex proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and some of the biologically active substances. The first few days, the milk is a sweet, thin, yellowish fluid and is called colostrum. Some women have reported the leaking of this fluid from breasts during the last stage of pregnancy. It contains proteins and antibodies to provide enough immunity to the baby and also helps in the final development and functioning of the digestive system of the baby.
After about 3-5 days, the milk becomes thicker and creamier to quench thirst as well as hunger for the baby.
The components are as follows:
- Proteins – The proteins like IgA, lysozyme and serum albumin, present in the breastmilk help in baby’s immunity and growth, apart from protecting the baby against cancer.
- Fat – It also contains fat, mostly triglycerides specifically required for the baby’s growth.
- Nitrogen- containing compounds – like amino acids, uric acid, creatine, creatinine, etc are also present in the breastmilk.
- Neurotransmitters – Endocannabinoids are natural neurotransmitters found in breastmilk.
- Palmitic acid esters – These are appetite regulators that are found in the right amounts in breastmilk.
- Probiotic food – Breastmilk contains about 600 different species of gut-friendly bacteria.
- Stem cells – Breastmilk also contains stem cells and somatic cells that is unique to the individual baby. The stem cells have been shown to be able to differentiate into many types of cells to form tissues required for the growth of the baby. The stem cells enter the baby’s bloodstream via the intestine and reach relevant organs to develop into fully functional cells, working for the particular organ.
- Sugars – Human milk oligosaccharides are sugars that are exclusively present in the breastmilk and are not replicable in the formula milk. They help in developing the gut-friendly bacteria and also help in improving the immune response of the baby.
Breastmilk is the best milk for a newborn baby for at least up to six months of age. Apart from all the above physiological benefits of breastmilk, it also helps in the bonding of the mother and the newborn baby.