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Breast Milk | What’s in that stuff anyway?

It’s important to educate ourselves even more about the benefits of nursing our children whenever it is humanly possible to do so.  Breast milk is not only full of all the nutrients and antibodies a new baby needs, it has living organisms that give it the ability to fight infection and viruses and make baby healthy and strong.

Learning about the properties of breast milk can put a whole new spin on the question, “Got milk?” Although formula companies have done their best to try to replicate the beneficial properties of breast milk, they can’t even come close. Here’s why.

What's in breast milk?

Carbohydrates in Breast Milk

Both breast milk and formula have carbohydrates for energy.  In formula, some of the carbs are supplied in the form of corn maltodextrin; many babies are sensitive to corn ingredients.

In breast milk, more than 200 different kinds of oligosaccharides, or milk sugars, provide many of the carbs. Oligosaccharides have several functions in the body; they can:

* improve gastrointestinal health, reducing the number of harmful bacteria and feeding the beneficial bacteria in the colon.

* improve energy levels

* prevent infectious agents from binding to certain cells in the body.

Proteins in Breast Milk

Proteins are necessary for developing muscles and bones. Many formulas supply protein in the form of whey protein concentrate from cow’s milk, which can be problematic for a baby’s sensitive digestive system.

The proteins in breast milk are more completely absorbed and have infection-protection properties and may even help induce sleep in infants. Some of the proteins found in breast milk include:

* Lactoferrin – This protein hinders the growth of certain bacteria found in the digestive tract and provides iron for the infant.

* Secretory IgA – This immunoglobulin protects against viruses and bacteria, E. coli, and may even protect against allergies.

* Lysozyme – This anti-inflammatory enzyme helps protect against bacterial infection.

* Bifidus factor – helps promote the development of lactobactillus, a friendly bacterium that helps create an environment where good bacteria flourish and bad bacteria cannot survive.

Hormones in Breast Milk

These chemical messengers carry signals from one cell to another. Breast milk contains a thyroid-stimulating hormone, which can help regulate the function of the thyroid gland. It also contains bradykinin and endorphins, which serve as natural painkillers.

A variety of growth factors help encourage the development of tissues and organs in the body. The hormones found in breast milk vary as the baby develops. This may impact the timing of critical developmental milestones in babies. Even if some of these hormones could be reproduced in formula, they would be synthetic, and the processing of the formula would likely prevent them from surviving.

Antimicrobial “Wow” Factors in Breast Milk

Breast milk helps support a baby’s immune system. It gives baby some of the immunity that the mother has already developed from being exposed to certain illnesses, and it contains antimicrobial factors that help the immune system detect and kill foreign objects such as viruses and bacteria.

A mere drop of breast milk contains approximately one million living white blood cells! These white blood cells go to work in the baby’s body, killing germs and fighting bacteria. Even when breast milk is expressed—for example, when a mother goes back to work—the white blood cells help “eat” any bacteria found in the stored breast milk.

Breast milk was made for babies. In fact, it constantly changes to give babies what they need at every developmental stage. What a baby needs at six weeks is different than what a baby needs at six months; breast milk “knows” this and adapts to fill the nutritional needs of the baby throughout the first few years. Although scientists are working hard to replicate the benefits of breast milk in formula, they are a long way from reproducing some of its most intricate and amazing benefits.


Guest author Amy Stevens is a childbirth educator.


This post was written by a guest writer for Prime Parents Club. We are not currently taking new guest writers.

1 Comment

  1. Anja

    August 5, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Great post! That’s why it’s called ‘liquid gold’! Keep on nursing!

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