The most nourishing food |04 August 2023
Now that I have your attention let’s find out what is Mother Nature’s most amazing food. This is none other than breastmilk! It is unique to each mother and baby and is dynamic, changing in composition throughout the entire day. The benefits of breastfeeding begin in infancy and continues throughout childhood and even extends to adulthood.
We pay homage to this superb food in commemoration of World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) which is celebrated annually from August 1 to 7 to raise awareness and build support for breastfeeding around the world. The theme for this year’s WBW is ‘let’s make breastfeeding and work, work!’
This urges all of us to think about how we can step up and make a difference in the lives of working and breastfeeding mums. It begins with the employer ensuring that all mothers have paid and uninterrupted maternity leave. Once they resume work they should be supported to continue breastfeeding through provision of for example an area where they can express their milk or have breastfeeding breaks where they are permitted to go and breastfeed their baby.
The current maternity leave in Seychelles has gradually increased over the years and is currently 16 weeks. Although it is aligned to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards which mandate a minimum of 14 weeks’ maternity leave, there is recommendation from ILO to increase it to at least 18 weeks.
Some of you might be wondering why does it even matter? Some people are of the view that once a woman has given birth the hard part is over and she is ‘relaxing at home’. This is far from true. Without the support, care and love of family members, a new mum will face various difficulties including but not limited to getting adequate rest and time to recover as well as being unable to care for her newborn baby.
Choosing to breastfeed is a personal choice most of the time but very few women may have certain medical conditions which prevents them from being able to do so. Before you make your final decision it is important to get all the facts which includes the seemingly endless benefits of breastmilk. Try not to be influenced by other people’s experiences but rather focus on you and your baby so you can make the right choice that works for both of you.
Benefits of breastfeeding
The most important benefit of breastfeeding of course is exactly what it was designed for and that is to provide nutrition to your baby. Breastmilk is the unequivocal and optimal nutritional source for your baby providing all the right nutrients that his/her body needs. The nutrients are easily digested by your baby.
Whenever you are exposed to viruses or bacteria your body mounts an immune response which includes production of antibodies which then gets passed on in breastmilk and provides immunity to the baby. It therefore helps protect the baby against many illnesses such as middle ear infections, respiratory tract infections and gut infections. Breastmilk may also reduce the risk of many diseases or conditions like allergies, bowel diseases and obesity.
Although other environmental factors may have an influence as the child grows older, there is evidence that exclusively breastfed babies have improved brain development which makes them have a higher IQ. Therefore, breastfed babies are generally smarter.
It turns out however that breastfeeding does not only benefit the baby but the mother as well. Some of the benefits to the mother include an emotional bond to the baby; contraction of the uterus to return it to its original size prior to pregnancy; reduced risk of ovarian and breast cancer; and the best of all it can save time and money since breastmilk is free of charge and is readily available.
Composition of breastmilk
Breastmilk is superior to infant formula in terms of its nutritional composition and the active compounds it contains such as antibodies and enzymes. Its composition is not static but rather changes and adapts in accordance to the baby’s needs and growth and also in line with the mother’s food intake.
On the other hand, infant formula remains the same as long as it is prepared in the same way every time. Formula only contains nutrients, many of which are added in during processing and does not contain any active compounds. To further explain how breastmilk composition changes we begin as early as when the baby’s born.
Many women are worried in the early days of delivery because they notice that there is a thick yellow liquid instead of ‘white’ milk. Rest assured that it is the same for all women. This first liquid or first milk is known as Colostrum which aside from providing good nutrition to the baby, is critical in protecting the baby from harmful microbes and infection in the early days of life.
After about five to seven days your body gradually moves from a transitional milk to producing mature milk. This milk has two components – foremilk and hindmilk. At the beginning of each feed the first milk which comes out is a watery milk filled with nutrients designed to quench the baby’s thirst. As the feeding continues the milk becomes progressively thicker with a higher fat content. This is the hindmilk and satisfies the baby’s hunger. It is for this reason that we are told that breastmilk is complete. It contains both fluid and food to nourish the baby.
The composition of breastmilk in terms of nutrients and active compounds rely a lot on the mother. Mothers are encouraged to have a varied diet comprising of nutritious foods like fish, eggs, chicken, lean meat, fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, milk products and healthy fats. Mother’s should avoid drinking alcohol, smoking and using other drugs as they can be transferred in her breastmilk to her baby.
Although what the mother consumes affects milk composition, the amount of milk produced is influenced solely by how often the baby breastfeeds. If you want more milk, then you need to put the baby to breast more often to increase milk production – a supply-demand relationship.
Recommendations for breastfeeding
We are constantly being told to breastfeed and for good reasons! But many of us may not be sure how to get started and for how long we should be breastfeeding. In line with global recommendations the first thing to get things off on the right start is the initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour after birth. This helps in establishing breastfeeding early on.
Once that happens mothers are encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their baby for the first six months of life. Exclusive breastfeeding means that you should provide your baby with ONLY breastmilk and no other food and fluid, including water and infant formula. This is because breastmilk alone is sufficient to provide all the nourishment and other requirements that the baby may have during the first six months.
The unparalleled benefits of breastmilk mean that it really should be the only food that the baby gets in the very early stage of their lives. Finally, from six months when complementary foods are introduced babies should continue to be breastfed. Continued breastfeeding may be up to two years of age and beyond.
By promoting, supporting, protecting and sustaining breastfeeding we are in no way undermining women who may have had difficulty or who have gone through a bad experience. We are trying to help more women to come forward and get the help and support they need to be able to breastfeed by really highlighting all the reasons why they should.
Give your baby a winning start in life by choosing to breastfeed. Remember that each and every one of us can help make it possible by being part of the support system that the mother needs especially working mums. In echoing once more the theme for this year ‘let’s make breastfeeding and work, work!’
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Yours in health
The E4OH team