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Well all know the mantra by now that breastmilk is best for your baby. However, has anyone ever really stopped to break down exactly why? Other than vague ‘its good for development etc’? The reality is that breastfeeding isn’t a walk in the park for a lot of people and sometimes really understanding how significant the benefits are can get you that extra mile. Particular as the latest science if anything is strengthening the reasons why it is so powerful. In this article we look into the science to give you that extra bit of motivation when its 3am and you’re wondering what on earth you’re doing?!
I dont know about you, but when I was pregnant and first had my son I was bombarded with people telling me that breastfeeding was the ONLY way to go.
That’s fine, but, what was missing for me was the real science based reason why.
There are two reasons that I think the why is especially important:
ONE: once again, if you’re anything like me (just like when I was told not to date a particular guy…) I tend not to listen or take to seriously unless I really understand why for myself. Whether its lack of knowledge/time or whatever – I found that when I asked the question ‘why’, I got lots of different, often fluffy or parroted answers. We’re smart women and we want to really know and understand the real reason we’re doing something.
TWO: breastfeeding (I learnt) not a walk in the park. I had a really hard time (for various reasons). I also realised that although it isn’t something that is generally talked about, a lot of people struggle. So, having a clear motivation with proper understanding I think is key.
So, when its 3am and you’re awake and breastfeeding (and wondering what the hell is going on) here is your motivation. This is the science as to why this really is so important for your baby’s future health:
Once again it comes down to our powerful new friend: the gut:
The science is increasingly pointing to the early makeup of a baby’s gut bacteria (part of the microbiota) as being crucial for helping protecting and establishing lifelong health. Essentially, you want this to be as healthy as possible. Well, breastfeeding has been shown to be a major contributor to this (click here to learn more on why this is so important) with a huge amount of research showing significant differences in the gut bacteria of breastfed babies vs formula fed.
Starting with PREBIOTICS: the unsung heroes of the gut health world. We hear so much about Probiotics, but what we dont hear as much about are the powerhouses that feed the existing bacteria that we do have: Prebiotics (click here for much more on these more generally). Breastmilk has been shown to have a huge natural prebiotic component in the form of what is known as Human Milk Oligosaccharides or HMOs. These feed the bacteria ‘which can selectively shape the growth and function of beneficial microbes’ (1). In fact they have been shown to do the following:
Resist stomach acid and get all the way in to the gut
Stimulate the growth of certain bacteria vs others
Act in a ‘personalised way’ – different women have a different makeup of HMOs.
EPIGENETICS: Environmental factors that cause one gene to express itself over another. Studies looking at intestinal cells has shown that ‘the infant feeding type also affects host gene expression, with breastfeeding enhancing transcription of genes that are associated with immunological and metabolic activities.’ (1). Translation: breastfeeding may well play a part in switching ‘on’ the genes that kick start our immunity and metabolism. Pretty cool.
IMMUNITY: a newborn baby is relatively defenceless, on all levels. On a molecular level, they are deficient in the main antibody that protects mucous membranes in the body: secretory IgA. Breastmilk provides around 0.25-0.5g per day of secretory IgA antibodies (2) which is why breastfeeding is known as providing a protective element while the immune system develops. In fact in developing countries the most vulnerable time for a baby is during weaning when breastfeeding is stopped and potentially contaminated food and water is added.
THE GOOD ONES: once again, we dont know everything yet, but when it comes to getting enough of the ‘good bacteri’ the studies we do have so far suggest that when it comes to infancy in particular two strains you want are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli (the ones you often see advertised in store bought probiotic supplements). ‘In this context, several publications have reported that stools of breastfed infants contain higher levels of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli and lower levels of potential pathogens than those of their formula-fed counterparts’ (1) Click here to find out more about what these specific strains do.
SCFA: Short Chain Fatty Acids. Something you may not have heard of, but, something you want in your life (and gut) click here to learn about these. In a nutshell they are produced by the gut microbiota and have been shown to help prevent overgrowth of bad bacteria (by altering pH levels), improve the gut’s filtering mechanism (stopping things that shouldn’t get through) and act as an anti inflammatory. They’re what you want. Studies have shown that the levels of SCFAs are also different in the stools of breastfed versus formula-fed infants, with propionate and butyrate (which have been shown to have particularly protective effects) being present at higher levels in breastfed babies.
Of course on top of all of this there is the bonding you get with your baby. Once again your hormones are firing on all cylinders here with two in particular playing important roles. First is the hormone of love and bonding Oxytocin and the other is Prolactin.
Oxycotin has several important features:
It promptes the milk release from the breast (helping the baby’s own efforts)
It causes the uterus to contract, helping it to shrink back after birth
It is also a powerful antidepressant
Prolactin is also crucial:
This is the milk production hormone and is produced when the baby sucks
The more the baby sucks the more the hormone sends for further production (which is why it is recommended to breastfeed or pump as regularly as possible)
It does have an impact on your menstrual cycle potentially too – as generally speaking it inhibits ovulation. However, how much you produce is another thing which is why despite the commonly held view that breastfeeding can stop you getting pregnant it is most certainly not fully reliable contraception.
The negative (maybe, depending on your perspective!) is that it can make your sex drive as active as a piece of wet cardboard, true story!
So – when you’re exhausted and it seems relentless – keep going. Even just giving your baby some breast milk is better than nothing. If you have to supplement with formula that is fine too. The slog is worth it and you’re doing an amazing job.
Watch this space: lots more to come on how to make this sometimes tricky gift to your baby a bit easier.
1) MILANI C, DURANTI S, VENTURA M: The First Microbial Colonizers of the Human Gut: Composition, Activities, and Health Implications of the Infant Gut Microbiota: Mirobiology and Molecular Biology Reviews: 2017 Dec: 81 (4)
2) HANSON LA, SODERSTROM T: Human Milk: Defence against infection. Programme of Clinical Biological Research. 1981: 61: 147-59
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.
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