Why breast-feed?

Women breast-feed for a variety of reasons. Some breast-feed because they like always having milk ready for their baby, while others see it as a way of strengthening the bond they developed with their baby during pregnancy. Still others decide to breast-feed because of the health benefits it provides. Finances are also a factor for some families, as breast-feeding is very economical (there is nothing to buy—no milk, no bottles).

Health professionals the world over recommend that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. The Canadian Paediatric Society, Dieticians of Canada, and Health Canada all echo this recommendation. Once babies have started foods, it is recommended that they continue breast-feeding for two years or more.

Breast milk: a food like no other

Essential information to rememberBreast-feeding takes a little practice.

Photo : Mireille Lewis

All mammals produce milk that meets the exact needs of their young. The makeup of human milk is suited to the particular needs of human babies. What’s more, milk composition changes throughout the breast-feeding period to adapt to the growing baby’s changing needs. Babies love the taste of breast milk, which varies slightly depending on the mother’s diet. This helps babies become accustomed to a variety of tastes.

Breast milk is made up of easily absorbed non-allergenic proteins, sugars, and iron, as well as enzymes that aid baby’s digestion. It provides all the fats baby needs, including lots of omega-3 fatty acids and other essential fatty acids that support brain and eye development. It gives every baby the exact amount of vitamins and minerals she needs to develop, which is also just right for her growing kidneys.

Breast milk contains living cells like white blood cells and antibacterial and antiviral factors that help baby’s immune system fight infection. No other food has these, not even commercial infant formula. At present, breast milk simply cannot be recreated in a laboratory.

Human milk contains over 200 known components. The table Composition of breast milk shows some of these components and compares them with those found in commercial infant formula. You will see that all milk contains protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but those found in breast milk are different and provide exactly what human babies need.

Composition of breast milk

Ingredient Function Naturally present in breast milk? Present in commercial infant formula?

Water

Hydrate the baby

Protein

Source of energy and building blocks; regulates body function

Carbohydrates

The main source of energy for all cells

Fat

Store energy for future use

Minerals

Help cells and bones grow

Vitamins

Help cells and bones grow

Active Enzymes

  • Amylase
  • Lipase
  • Lysozyme

Aid food digestion

 

Hormones

  • Cortisol
  • Insulin
  • Thyroxine
  • Prostaglandin

Regulate metabolism and support digestive and immune system development

 

Growth factors

  • Human growth factors
  • EGF and other growth factors

Support intestinal growth and development

 

Antimicrobial factors (antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasite factors)

  • Antibodies (SIgA, IgA, IgM, IgD, IgG)
  • Bifidobacteria
  • Lactoferrin
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Lysozymes
  • Casein
  • Living cells present in human milk (macrophages, T and B lymphocytes)

Protect against bacterial infections (e.g., E. coli, S. pneumoniæ), viruses, and parasites

 

A gift of health for both mom and baby

Essential information to rememberThe longer a baby is breast-fed, the more protected she will be. Even small amounts of breast milk are beneficial.

Because breast milk contains antibodies and other factors that support baby’s immune system, breast-fed babies are better able to fight off certain diseases. The more breast milk a baby gets, the more protection he has—protection that can even continue after he stops breast-feeding.

Breast-fed babies are at lower risk of anemia, gastroenteritis, diarrhea, respiratory illness (colds, bronchitis, etc.), and ear infection than babies who are not breast-fed. And when breast-fed babies do get these illnesses, they are less severe and require hospitalization less frequently. Breast-fed babies are also better protected against a number of chronic diseases.

Breast-feeding also has benefits for women. In the short term, breast-feeding reduces the risk of hemorrhage after delivery. Women who breast-feed are also less likely to be anemic because nursing delays the return of menstrual periods. In the long run, women who have breast-fed have a lower risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

A practical, inexpensive way to feed your baby

Breast-feeding is practical because milk is always instantly available when baby needs it. When he’s hungry, he doesn’t have to wait for food. Breast-feeding is also practical for parents. There is nothing to wash, prepare, store, or heat.

It is also inexpensive because no milk has to be bought. Even if a mother goes out without her baby, she doesn’t need to buy any milk. She can express (“pump”) her milk so someone else can give it to her baby while she is gone.


Hemorrhage : Heavy bleeding.