The Case for Mother’s Milk
By Awake! correspondent in Nigeria
IMAGINE a baby food that is delicious, easy to digest, and meets all the nutritional needs of developing infants. A food that is a “wonder drug” that both guards against and treats disease. A food that costs nothing and is readily available to families everywhere on earth.
Impossible, you say? Well, such a product does exist, though it has not been developed by industrial scientists. It is mother’s milk.
Throughout mankind’s history this marvelous food has been considered crucial to child care. For example, the Bible tells us that when the daughter of Pharaoh found the infant Moses, she directed his sister to call for “a nursing woman” to care for him. (Exodus 2:5-9) Later, in Greek and Roman societies, robust wet nurses were commonly employed to provide milk for the infants of wealthy parents. In recent decades, however, the practice of breast-feeding has sharply declined, partly because of advertising that made many people think that breast milk was inferior to the infant formulas of modern technology. Today, that trend is being reversed as more and more mothers come to realize that “breast is best.”
The Best Nutrition
Have scientists improved on the Creator’s built-in method of feeding infants? Hardly. UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) states: “Breast-milk alone is the best possible food and drink for babies in the first four to six months of life.” Breast milk contains all the proteins, growth stimulants, fats, carbohydrates, enzymes, vitamins, and trace elements that are vital to an infant’s healthy growth during the first few months of life.
Not only is breast milk the best food for newborn babies but it is also the only food they need. The World Health Assembly reaffirmed in May 1992 that “during the first four to six months of life no food or liquid other than breast milk, not even water, is required to meet the normal infant’s nutritional requirements.” Breast milk contains enough water to quench a baby’s thirst even in hot, dry climates. Bottle-feeding extra water or sugary drinks is not only unnecessary but can cause the baby to stop breast-feeding entirely, since babies usually prefer the relative ease of bottle-feeding. Of course, after the first few months of life, other food and drink need to be gradually added to the baby’s diet.
No substitute provides such an ideal balance of ingredients to promote the healthy growth and development of infants. The book Reproductive Health—Global Issues states: “Attempts to substitute for breast milk have not been successful. The historical literature on the subject of infant feeding is replete with evidence that non-breastfed infants are at a much higher risk of infection and malnutrition than breastfed infants.”
Breast-Feeding Saves Lives
According to WHO (World Health Organization), a million infant deaths worldwide would be prevented each year if all mothers fed their babies nothing but breast milk during the first four to six months of life. UNICEF’s report State of the World’s Children 1992 states: “A bottle-fed baby in a poor community is approximately 15 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease and 4 times more likely to die from pneumonia than a baby who is exclusively breastfed.”
Why is this? One reason is that powdered milk, apart from being nutritionally inferior to mother’s milk, is often overdiluted using unclean water and then served in unsterilized feeding bottles. So bottle milk can easily be contaminated with the bacteria and viruses that cause diarrheic disease and respiratory infections, the major killers of children in developing countries. In contrast, milk straight from the breast is not easily contaminated, requires no mixing, does not spoil, and cannot become overdiluted.
A second reason why breast-feeding saves lives is that mother’s milk contains antibodies that protect the infant against disease. Even when diarrheic disease or other infections do occur, they are usually less severe and easier to treat among breast-fed infants. Researchers also suggest that babies fed on breast milk seem less prone to dental disease, cancer, diabetes, and allergies. And because it requires vigorous sucking action, breast-feeding may promote in infants the proper development of facial bones and muscles.
Benefits to Mothers
Breast-feeding doesn’t benefit just baby; it benefits mother as well. For one thing, a baby’s suckling the breast stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which not only helps milk release and flow but also causes contraction of the uterus. When the uterus contracts promptly after delivery, prolonged bleeding is less likely. Breast-feeding also delays the return of ovulation and menstruation. This tends to delay the next pregnancy. Longer intervals between pregnancies mean healthier mothers and babies.
Another big plus for women is that breast-feeding lowers the risk of ovarian and breast cancer. Some experts say that the risk of breast cancer for a woman who breast-feeds her infant is half what it would be if she did not.
Not to be overlooked in listing the benefits of breast-feeding is mother-child bonding. Since it involves not only the giving of food but also oral contact, skin-to-skin contact, and physical warmth, breast-feeding can help forge an important bond between mother and child and may contribute to the child’s emotional and social development.
Deciding to Breast-Feed
Almost all mothers are physically able to provide enough milk for their infants if certain requirements are met. Breast-feeding should begin as soon as possible after birth, within the first hour after the delivery of the baby. (The first breast milk, a thick yellowish substance called colostrum, is good for babies and helps protect them from infections.) Thereafter, babies should be fed on demand, including during the night, and not according to a fixed schedule. The correct positioning of the baby at the breast is also important. An experienced and sympathetic adviser can provide help in these matters.
Of course, whether a mother decides to breast-feed her infant or not depends on more than simply her physical ability to do so. The State of the World’s Children 1992 reports: “Mothers need the support of hospitals if they are to give their babies the best possible start; but if they are to continue breastfeeding, they will also need the support of employers, trade unions, communities—and of men.”
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Breast-Feeding in the Developing World
1. Breast milk alone is the best possible food and drink for a baby in the first four to six months of life.
2. Babies should start to breast-feed as soon as possible after birth. Virtually every mother can breast-feed her baby.
3. Frequent sucking is needed to produce enough breast milk for the baby’s needs.
4. Bottle-feeding can lead to serious illness and death.
5. Breast-feeding should continue well into the second year of a child’s life and for longer if possible.
Source: Facts for Life, jointly published by UNICEF, WHO, and UNESCO.
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Breast-Feeding and AIDS
In late April 1992, WHO and UNICEF brought together an international group of experts to consider the relationship of AIDS and breast-feeding. The need for the meeting was explained by Dr. Michael Merson, director of the WHO Global Program on AIDS. He said: “Breast-feeding is a crucial element of child survival. A baby’s risk of dying of AIDS through breast-feeding must be balanced against its risk of dying of other causes if not breast-fed.”
According to WHO, about one third of all babies born to HIV-infected mothers become infected also. While much of the mother-to-infant transmission of the disease occurs during pregnancy and delivery, there is evidence that it can also occur through breast-feeding. However, states WHO, “the vast majority of babies breast-fed by HIV-infected mothers do not become infected through breast-feeding.”
The panel of experts concluded: “Where infectious diseases and malnutrition are the main cause of infant deaths and the infant mortality rate is high, breast-feeding should be the usual advice to pregnant women, including those who are HIV-infected. This is because their baby’s risk of HIV infection through breast milk is likely to be lower than its risk of death from other causes if it is not breast-fed.
“On the other hand, in settings where the main cause of death during infancy is not infectious diseases and the infant mortality rate is low, the . . . usual advice to pregnant women known to be infected with HIV should be to use a safe feeding alternative for their baby rather than breast-feed.”