It is recommended by The World Health Organization (WHO) that infants are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life. Breast-feeding should begin within one hour of birth; typically this will be in the labor room. Breast-feeding not only provides adequate nutrition for the infant but also provides many health benefits for the mother including; reduced risk of osteoporosis, some cancers, diabetes and weight loss!
Breast milk provides the infant with adequate nutrients they need for growth and development. These nutrients include:
- Fats provide one half of the energy content of breast milk. The fat is secreted in small droplets and increases as feed progresses. The main fats in breast milk are long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (docosahexaenoic acid or DHA and arachidonic acid or ARA). These fats are particularly important for the neurological development of the child.
- Carbohydrates in breast milk are mainly in the form of lactose, a disaccharide important as a source of energy. Oligosaccharides found in breast milk are mainly for protective factors.
- Protein: The protein content of human breast milk is much lower than the milk of other animals. Breast milk contains less of the protein casein, which is also structured differently compared to other animal milks. The altered structure of casein forms softer and more easily digestible milk for human infants. Other proteins found in human milk include whey proteins including alpha-lactalbumin. Cows milk contains beta-lactoglobulin, which is absent from human breast milk and infants can become intolerant to it.
- Vitamins and minerals: Human breast milk provides most vitamins and minerals for the infant, unless the mother is deficient. The exception to this is vitamin D. Infants should be exposed to sunlight to ensure they can produce vitamin D themselves. If this is not possible a supplement should be considered. Concentrations of zinc and iron in breast milk are quite low but are more bioavailable in breast milk than formula. Providing maternal iron status is adequate, infants have adequate stores of iron to last approximately until 6 months of life. At this time, solid foods, in particular iron rich ones (organic livers and egg yolks), should be introduced to ensure adequate iron intake.
Breast milk also contains anti-infective factors to help support the infant’s immature immune system and prevent infection. These factors include:
- Immunoglobulins, mainly secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), which coast intestinal mucosa and prevents bacteria entering the cells.
- White blood cells, which kill microorganisms
- Whey proteins (lysozyme and lactoferrin), which kill bacteria, fungus and viruses.
- Oligosaccharides, which prevent bacteria adhesion to cells of mucosa.