Breast milk – the natural way to nourish your little one.

Giving birth to a child is one important and unforgettable event in any mother’s life. Once a baby is born, what next? This is when a series of questions arise especially about baby’s food and care. What to feed? When to feed? How to feed? Breastfeed or bottle feed? It is often overwhelming for a mother especially when no elders are around to assist, support or suggest.

Breast milk is the natural way to nourish a baby and it alone is enough to meet his/her nutritional needs for the first six months. During this period, no other liquids or breastfeeding substitutes should be given to infants except for medicine or oral rehydration solution. World Health Organization recommends feeding the baby within one hour of birth to prevent infections.  Colostrum produced by the mother at the end of pregnancy is the perfect food for the new born and also the perfect start for baby’s immunization. The advantages of breastfeeding from bonding, cost factor, hygiene, intelligence, health and immunity have been discussed and proved over time through various studies.  Some important things to consider when breast feeding is the latch, the hold and position, mother’s nutrition and the place.

It is very important for the mother to have a balanced diet during this phase because whatever the mother eats is going to be passed on to the child through the breast milk. Mother’s diet should be rich in protein, calcium, iron, DHA and vitamin c.

Baby should be fed “on cues” like sucking movements and cooing sounds, restlessness etc. and not just crying. Baby should be breastfed at least 8 to 10 times in 24 hours till lactation is established (1 to 2 weeks) indicated by adequate weight gain. Mother should communicate and look into the baby’s eyes, touch and caress while feeding the baby.

Did you know? (based on recent NFHS-4 data)

  • Only 54.9 % children under the age of six months have been exclusively breastfed.
  • Among the South Indian states, Tamil Nadu has reported the least compliance with 48.3% children who have been exclusively breastfed till six months.
  • NHFS-4 has also found that only 41% of children are breastfed within the first hour of birth. This means a lost opportunity to give the child colostrum (the first secretion after birth, rich in antibodies).
  • 99,499 children die each year as a result of diarrhea and pneumonia that could have been prevented through early initiation of breastfeeding.
  • The high level of child mortality and growing number of deaths in women from cancers and type II diabetes attributable to inadequate breastfeeding is estimated to drain the Indian economy of $7 billion.
  • Breastfeeding could save lives of more than 820,000 children and 20,000 women annually.

Though WHO recommends exclusive breast feeding for first six months, there are certain circumstances where the mother may not be able to breast feed the baby.  It could be any of the following reasons like mother’s death, mother or baby is sick, mother has to work, breast milk production is not enough or when the mother has HIV. Solutions like breast pumps, natural remedies to improve milk production, ARV drugs for the breastfeeding mother affected with HIV can really keep the breast feeding go on. WHO also recommends pasteurized human donor milk and milk banks when mother’s milk is unavailable.

If the baby has to be bottle fed due to unavoidable reasons, a combination of breast feeding and bottle feeding is usually suggested. Exclusive formula feeding has its own disadvantages. Formula feed is industrially prepared and often tries to mimic nutritional composition of breast milk. Its base is mostly cow or soy milk. Formula feed does not provide antibodies, could cause allergies and is difficult to digest at times. It has a greater risk of contamination and overfeeding. Formula feeds are expensive and needs boiling water, sterile feeding bottle etc.  Choosing a right formula for the baby is the greatest challenge often faced by the mothers. There is lot of research happening to improve formula feed by including immune factors in the feed and it is not appropriate to demonize formula feeding completely and judging mothers who cannot breast feed their babies. But still, when it comes to breast milk or formula feed, breast milk is the clear winner to nourish an infant. Apart from nutritional advantage, breastfeeding increases the bond between mother and baby and is convenient too. After all, breast fed babies are happy and healthy babies.

-Dr. Triveni Chandraprakasam

Did you know?

Formula-fed infants may be at greater risk for overfeeding and rapid weight gain (1). 

Multiple functional gastrointestinal disorders are frequent in formula‐fed infants and decrease their quality of life (2).

Sugars in infant formulas pose risk to babies with inherited metabolic disorder. Acute liver failure caused by hereditary fructose intolerance (3).

Infant formulas are constantly improving. Research on breastmilk substitutes is growing every day. Very recent fortification attempts hold the promise of partly buffering the greater risks of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer found among children and adults who were formula-fed as infants (4).

References for further reading

Research articles