The best feed for babies

Breast milk is known to be the optimal post-natal source of nutrition for infants, writes Dr Geetika Gangwani

Young mother with her child.

There is immense power that a mother’s milk holds and it is important that not only the mother but everyone around her should be aware of its benefits. The benefits that the components of the milk entail begin from the first moments of childbirth and continue for many years after breastfeeding ends.

Microbiota protects from infection

Breast milk encompasses a wide variety of nutritional components including beneficial microorganisms. These nutrients play a crucial role in reducing the occurrence and severity of infections in breastfed infants thereby strengthening the immune system.

It consists of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and proteins apart from non-nutritive bio-components and a vast array of microbes known as the human milk microbiota — all of which are easily digested by a newborn. In fact, breast milk is also known to be the optimal post-natal source of nutrition for infants. 

The community of microbes that inhabits your intestine plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of some cancers.

Therefore, it is important that the foundation of the gut microbiome of an infant is strong because it determines the state of the infant’s health throughout its lifetime.

Consumption of probiotic-rich foods like fermented vegetables, organic whole fat yogurt, onions, garlic and bananas during pregnancy ensures the breast milk is rich in probiotics.
Skin-to-skin contact also aids in developing the infant’s microbiome.

It is recommended for mothers to remain in such contact for up to seven hours a day. Cuddle sessions help to increase chances that breastfeeding gets initiated soon after birth. Even the skin of the nipple contains beneficial bacteria for infants.

Colostrum as first feed

For the baby to get the benefits of microbiota, colostrum needs to be the first feed. It establishes the gut microbiota. This yellowish-orange colour liquid has amazing properties that nourish your infant in the first days of life. The level of sodium, chloride and magnesium are higher. It is richer than breast milk.

WHO states that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months safeguards the child from various diseases and infections. The antibodies in the infant’s gut prevents it against allergies. It decreases the risk for iron deficiency or anaemia. Besides this, these antibodies and proteins that are passed down from the mother to the baby significantly reduce the chances of the infant acquiring gastrointestinal, respiratory, ear or urinary infections.

Preventing risk of cancers

Breatfeeding also reduces the risk of childhood leukemia, which is the most common type of childhood cancer. A child who is breastfed for six months or more has an 11% lower risk for childhood leukemia.

Mother’s milk gifts the infant’s body with natural killer cells that help in the resistance of both tumours and virally infected cells. The dominant bacteria in the milk, which is the lactic acid bacteria acts as the good bacteria. It helps fight the cancer-causing elements.

In addition to the nutrition, breast milk also encompasses stem cells that function to boost infant development early in life. These embryonic-like stem cells found in breast milk can be directed to become other body cell types such as bone, fat, liver, pancreatic and brain cells as the infant grows. These cells go to various organs in the infant’s developing body and become functional cells. These maternal cells may remain alive in the offspring lifelong. The higher the acceptance of maternal transplants, the more are the benefits that the infant receives. It is imperative that the mother of a newborn should religiously adopt breastfeeding practices to reduce the risk of acquiring diseases for both the child and herself. A combination of breast milk and a probiotic organism can do wonders for your infant’s health. Breastfeeding is a low-cost public health measure that, if adopted by every mother, can help reduce childhood cancers.

(The author is with IBCLC, Fortis Hospital)

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