As I move on to breastfeed my second child my love and admiration of breast milk continues to grow. I am always in awe of the amazing benefits that breastfeeding provides, both for mother and baby.
In the same breath I also think of the challenges it can face, how hard some mothers have to fight to be able to breastfeed and how devastating it can be for mothers who want to, but for one reason or another cannot breastfeed their child. I also acknowledge that formula feeding can be challenging as well (such as sterilising bottles and the cost of formula), and that while I will dedicate this article to the benefits of breastfeeding, I want you to know that if you weren’t breastfed or you can’t breastfeed your babe, it will still be okay.
I want to share some of the benefits of breastfeeding with you, as well as some information about your nutritional requirements during breastfeeding, and things which your diet can and cannot change about your breastmilk.
In fairness, I also discuss some of the less awesome things about breastfeeding (mostly from personal experience) and share some breastfeeding resources.
Some awesome benefits of breastfeeding.
Better bone health for Mum
While your calcium stores might drop down in the first few months of breastfeeding, as you continue to breastfeed your bone density is actually strengthened.
I know I’m repeating myself but I can’t help it, I just love the amazing prebiotic goodness of breastmilk for babies tummy. There are a vast amount of prebiotic sugars and fibres in breastmilk which encourages the growth of the good bacteria in the digestive system, and thus improves their immune system, skin health, digestion, behaviour, sleep and more. Having had to have a c-section for my first son I felt very reassured that I was doing wonders for his tummy by breastfeeding (which I have continued to do so).
Improves babies iron stores
There is a protein called lactoferrin in breastmilk which improves iron absorption, but also inhibits the growth of harmful micro-organisms which can steal iron for their own growth (such as E. coli, Candida spp. and Staphylococcus spp.). As young babies receive minimal iron from breastmilk this is a very handy feature, and it also means that when they do start receiving solids in addition to breastmilk it is better absorbed and utilised.
Protects against cancer in mothers
A study published in The Lancet in 2016 found that breastfeeding mothers had greater protection against breast cancer, as well as possibly ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes. The authors estimated that is breastfeeding was more universally established it could 20 000 annual deaths from breast cancer.
Individualised immune support
Whenever the mother is exposed to a pathogen of some form, she will start making protective antibodies which she will then transfer to the baby via her breastmilk. And what if the baby was exposed to these pathogens before mum? Baby will send some of these into the breast via a backwash mechanism, which then allows the mother to start making antibodies against. So baby gets the benefit of an experienced adult immune system to help them fight against infections, via breastmilk.
The same study mentioned above predicted that universally established breastfeeding could prevent 823 000 annual deaths in children younger than 5 years.
Better development of sleep-wake cycles.
Babies don’t have a natural day-night hormonal until a few months of age, but breastmilk actually delivers different hormones in the day and night that teaches baby when it’s time to be awake, or to sleep.
Better reaction to vaccinations for babies
Babies who are exclusively breastfed, and to a certain degree partially breastfed, have been shown to have less of a negative reaction to vaccinations. They are less likely to get a high fever or discomfort after the vaccinations, and breastfeeding during or immediately after the vaccination can also reduce the discomfort of the process.
The immune response to the vaccination is also better for a breastfed baby, making the vaccination more effective.
There is also a better metabolism of the less positive components of vaccines, in particular ethylmercury. Because of the prebiotic effect of breastfeeding, better gut flora can also protect against other negative effects of vaccinations and improves the immune response.
Breastfeeding burns calories.
Exclusive breastfeeding burns approximately 500 additional calories for the mother per day. It is thought that the fat stores from the thighs are what are used for this source first, however not all mothers notice a dramatic difference in their body shape or weight from breastfeeding.
Your nutritional requirements while breastfeeding.
Just as you did while you were pregnant, it’s important to make sure that you’re eating well so that you look after both yourself and baby. Even women (and men) who are formula feeding their baby need to look after themselves, as it’s very important for parents to take care of their health.
Breastfeeding mothers who aren’t able to access quality food can still provide excellent breastmilk to their babies, however it is often depleting their own nutritional reserves, which can result in fatigue, mood swings, hormonal imbalances, and also reduces the nutrient stores for future babes (which can be built back up, but may be an issue if the mother conceives again quickly).
The nutritional composition of breastmilk
Breastmilk is largely made up of carbohydrates in the form of lactose. It also contains a significant amount of fats and protein. It is the carbohydrates within the breastmilk that provide some of it’s wonderful benefits in boosting babies immune system, these are the prebiotic, the fuel which feeds the good bacteria in babies digestive tract. The growth of this bacteria is vital for their immune health in particular, but has a big role in almost every other facet of health including digestion, metabolism and impacts on future mental and hormonal health.
When infant formula was first created in the early 19th century scientists worked hard to make it as close as possible to the composition of breast milk, however babies were not thriving on it. Over time it was discovered that the key to this different was the prebiotics, in particular the oligo-saccharides (of which breast milk contains >200 different forms), and various forms of prebiotics are now often added to many brands of infant formulas in the attempt to provide this benefit. Unfortunately the ability to replicate this diversity of prebiotics is still lacking and so there is still a discrepancy between the gut flora of breast fed and infant fed formulas (but much less so than in the past before the addition of prebiotics to formula).
There is a small amount of protein in breast milk, and a substantial amount of fat, which makes it very energy dense. The protein content increases as the child ages, and is often made up of more specific immune boosting proteins.
Our breasts cleverly change the composition of breast milk over various stages of babies life.
Initially we produce colostrum, which is much lower in the carbohydrates but richer in the protein and fat to boost immune health.
After the placenta is passed our progesterone levels decrease dramatically, causing our milk to ‘come in’. As part of this, levels of lactose increase. (This is why things such as a retained placenta or use of progesterone medications i.e. the mini pill, can impact on the milk supply as progesterone essentially ‘holds the milk at bay’.)
Eventually the hormones have less of a role and our breasts will respond to ‘supply and demand’ – the more they are emptied they more they will fill. (Many women worry that their breasts feel softer during this time and that this means their supply is dropping – don’t worry, for most women it means your breasts are actually getting smarter at feeding).
If you are still breastfeeding your child into their second year there is an increase of protein (specially the immunoglobulins), which means that while your toddler is getting less milk quantity they are getting just as much of the immune boosting properties.
The milk will often change in composition during a feed as well, and the more the breast is drained the higher the fat content.
Your Diet and Breastmilk
As a general rule your breasts will keep the composition of breastmilk the same regardless of diet, for as long as possible (the repercussions of a bad diet fall onto the mother more so than the baby). But there are ways that your diet can impact on breast milk.
I see many mothers who cause themselves a great deal of stress about the potential of their diet harming baby, and I feel that it is important to remember that even with a sub-par diet, you are providing a wondrous array of benefits with breast milk. But if possible, eating well will provide many additional benefits to mother and baby.
Things that your diet CANNOT change
Your breasts will carefully regulate the amount of lactose in the milk and if you have been told that your baby many be lactose intolerant (an unfortunately common and incorrect piece of advice) your breasts will maintain lactose levels regardless. Lactose overload is more commonly the issue, rather than lactose overload, and this is likely due to insufficient drainage of the breast.
Things that your diet CAN change
The quality of the fat.
The omega fatty acid balance of your diet will have an impact on the milk, with women who consume more DHA have higher levels in the breastmilk. Women who have more DHA in the third trimester of pregnancy have higher fat levels in their breastmilk later on. For women who are vegan or do not consume omega fatty acids it may be worth considering to take a DHA supplement, as this is an important nutrient for brain and nervous system health, however dietary sources are better utilised than supplements.
Trans fats, which are predominately from junk food can also pass into breastmilk, so avoiding junk food is advisable.
To ensure you’ve got plenty of good fat, try to consume 2-3 serves of low mercury seafood per week, such as small fish like sardines. Vegan mothers may choose to supplement with algal DHA, (they may also benefit from supplementing with zinc, vitamin B12 and choline).
Vitamin A, C and E, and B vitamins (except folate), Iodine, Selenium, B12, Vitamin D and Choline
Nutrients not in this list are still important for you, but your breast will closely regulate levels of regardless of intake.
Some foods may potentially cause a reaction to baby. The protein within dairy, wheat and soy, chilli, and some cruciferous vegetables are common examples. I have provided a list of these foods here.
If you suspect that baby is intolerant to a food you are eating try eliminating one food at a time and then rechallenging. It is important to do this as thoroughly as possible tog et the best results. I don’t recommend taking a lot of foods out of your diet at once while breastfeeding as it is a time of increased energy requirements and you are often struggling to prepare good food at the best of times, so do it slowly and gradually. Speak to a health care practitioner for guidance if you’re struggling.
Medications and breastfeeding
Have you ever been told that you need to stop breastfeeding due to medication use?
There is a large difference in what medications are safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and some people are unfortunately told to stop breastfeeding when this might not be necessary, or decide by themselves to “pump and dump”. Doing this unnecessarily can reduce the amount of amazing breastmilk that your baby gets, and is also very stressful, and hard work, for the mother.
There can also be natural medicines that may be safe and effective as an alternative whilst breastfeeding, talk to your natural therapist about this if this is something you might consider.
Some things which aren’t so great about breastfeeding
Of course there are some downsides. I don’t believe they outweigh out the benefits, however I feel that in fairness I should mention them, mostly just so that other mother’s don’t feel like they’re alone if they experience these things too.
- It can hurt. Breastfeeding in the early days can be painful while your nipples get used to the process. If baby has a poor latch (perhaps due to tongue tie or an incorrect technique) this can also cause pain, contributing to nipple damage, which lengthens the duration of pain. If baby does not take enough nipple into their mouth it can rub against the hard palette, and this can really hurt. It is important to establish good technique from the start to reduce this, and getting consistent advice from a lactation consultant is a great way to do this.
- Breasts can leak. Oh boy, can they. The amount of breast pads I went through was ridiculous, and I still don’t understand why there aren’t more pattern breastfeeding friendly shirts available (because solid colours show the stains so much more). Thankfully the leakage situation does settle down – for me it took about 8 months.
- You can get ‘over-touched’, where you feel like all you want to do is sit by yourself and have no-one touch you for a while. Newborns like to nurse a lot. And the more you feed them, the better your supply, and the more a baby is held and carried the more settled they are, so of course we indulge them. And as baby ages, they can get a bit handsy. Mothers who have continued to feed their toddlers are likely well aware of the ‘twiddling’ that toddlers love to do, which for many mothers can drive them a little crazy.
- Many mothers notice a significant lack of libido whilst breastfeeding, at least until their period returns. This can be combined with vaginal dryness due to the hormone changes involved, meaning that even if you do want to have sex it can potentially be painful.
- It can be stressful. There are so many doubts that breastfeeding mothers can experience – ‘is my baby receiving enough milk’, ‘is my milk good enough’, ‘did something I eat/drink affect my baby’ and this can cause a mother significant stress and worry. There are so many benefits to breastfeeding that it would be a real shame if a mother were to stop feeding unnecessarily, without getting quality advice from a lactation consultant first.
- It can be embarrassing. A newborn baby will have no concept of when or where is an appropriate place to feed, and so mothers often will feed their baby is situations that might be a little awkward. I remember the feeling of ‘everyone is looking at me’ from the early days of feeding that can be very off-putting for some Mums. I have realised in retrospect that nah, most people are just looking at your cute baby and anyone else that is looking at you with judgement can bugger off.
- Mastitis. This is an infection of a milk duct in the breast. It doesn’t happen to all mothers but for those who do experience it, it’s pretty damn awful. A blocked duct can lead to infection, resulting in fever, chills, pain and lethargy. The whole thing can be incredibly painful and unpleasant. Thankfully there are natural methods to prevent and/or treat it, so if you are prone to this, see a naturopath for support.
- Juggling work and breastfeeding can be difficult. While women are within their rights to ask for allowances in the workplace to express, this can be easier said than done. It is also not always easy to express enough milk to maintain supply and provide a good feed for baby. Many mothers can produce bountiful amounts of milk when their baby is feeding, but expressing produces little to none. Even if they do manage to express, the storage and handling of the expressed milk can be a nuisance.
Australian Breastfeeding Association
ABA provides a free 24 hour hotline to answer questions about breastfeeding issues or provide support. This service doesn’t require you to be a member.
There are regular talks held on various topics by local groups. You can attend 3 without joining as a member. They also hold playgroups and catchups occasionally.
I attended ABA meetings for the first year of feeding Ash until work commitments stopped me from going, and they were an enjoyable and valuable experience. You can find local groups by contacting ABA directly or searching on facebook.
1800 686 2 686 / 1800 mum 2 mum
Find a lactation consultant
Information on attachment:
Watch this video before baby is born:
How to increase milk supply:
More links on breastfeeding attachment:
Baby Led Attachment – Renee Kam
Some great resources to check medications:
Medications and Mothers Milk Online: http://www.medsmilk.com