Breastmilk is often referred to as a “superfood” or “natural vaccination” for babies. Here’s why.
One of the world’s most natural and abundant substances yields unmatched benefits for our babies. That’s right – breastmilk, says Suzi Ryan, IBCLC, lactation consultant with Jefferson Health – New Jersey.
Often referred to by experts as a “superfood” or “natural vaccination,” breastmilk, in all its stages, can protect and serve the baby’s body – with continued advantages well into adulthood.
Colostrum, or early breastmilk, is arguably the most powerful. Produced within the first two to three days after the baby is born, it is nutrient-dense and thick and yellowish in color, explains Ryan. Colostrum is chock-full of protein, antibodies, enzymes, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
It has laxative properties and “flushes out” the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Colostrum mobilizes the GI tract and triggers the first bowel movement, known as meconium, which is a dark, tar-like stool, explains Ryan. Colostrum also coats the gut with protective properties that aid in reducing the risk of GI conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and Celiac disease/gluten sensitivity.
It kickstarts the immune system and invests in lifelong health.
“When babies enter the world, they’re immediately surrounded by germs – in the air, on pacifiers, and even on Grandma’s clothes when she visits,” said Ryan. “In colostrum, levels of protective antibodies and protein-antibody complexes are particularly high, but they continue to be delivered through transitional and mature milk.”
These antibodies “set the stage” for a strong and balanced immune system and significantly reduce the risk of infections (e.g., ear, respiratory, and gastrointestinal, etc.); asthma; allergies; eczema; and other complications.
We know that antibodies can provide protection for some illnesses that the mother has already had. Recently, data has shown that a level of COVID-19 antibodies can be passed on to babies both from the virus and the vaccine, adds Ryan. [Editor’s Note: For more information about COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant and mothering people, click here.]
Studies have also shown that breastmilk may reduce the likelihood of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), obesity, diabetes, and some childhood cancers. Plus, it aids in continued growth and development.
It adapts to the baby’s specific needs.
The antibodies at work in breastmilk are dynamic and change over time, depending on your baby’s individual needs, says Ryan. Whether they’re deficient in a certain nutrient, or illness strikes (mom or baby), the very next feed may provide a different milk makeup. Researchers believe that signals can be sent through babies’ saliva (while latched) back to the mammary glands (where milk is stored and produced) – telling them what is needed.
It can regenerate skin cells.
Breastmilk contains an epithelial growth factor, explains Ryan, which means it can help heal the top layer of skin. “If your baby accidentally gets a scratch on their face, all you have to do is dab a little bit of your breastmilk on it, and nine times out of 10, it’s healed the next day. If it can do this externally, just imagine the wonders it’s working internally.”
The same advice applies to moms who suffer from cracked nipples and dry skin while breastfeeding. They can rub a little breastmilk on the affected area.
It protects preemies from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
NEC – a severe infection that causes intestinal tissue to die – is one of the greatest risks for babies born prematurely, as their guts are underdeveloped, explains neonatologist Dr. Jane Coleman. Breastmilk is one of the most preventative treatments for this.
“For babies who cannot breastfeed right away, moms begin pumping. We bottle and refrigerate breastmilk to get as much use out of it as possible,” said Dr. Coleman.
Breastmilk can also come from donors and is used when mothers either can’t breastfeed or are unable to produce enough supply.
It reduces withdrawal symptoms in babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
In recent years, neonatal medicine experts discovered that breastmilk can aid in soothing babies with NAS, experiencing opioid withdrawal. Normal breastfeeding is now encouraged for mothers, as long as they are no longer taking opioids and/or are on a treatment program.
“At first, we didn’t know if small traces of addiction treatment medications – such as methadone or Subutex – would be helpful or harmful in breastmilk,” Dr. Coleman continued. “Fortunately, they have been found to ease withdrawal symptoms.”
For babies with NAS, there is also great power in non-drug methods of reducing discomfort. The simple act of breastfeeding – the skin-to-skin contact and swaddling – is incredibly helpful, adds Dr. Coleman. “The emotional bond that occurs between mom and baby yields great psychological benefits, helps reduce symptoms, and can even improve long-term outcomes.”
Most of these beneficial outcomes result from longer-term, exclusive breastfeeding, for at least six months, notes Ryan. “Exclusive breastfeeding is exactly what it sounds like – breastmilk only, with no solid foods. Not everyone will reach six months, but the closer to exclusive, the better.”
If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, you don’t have to ignore it or resolve it on your own, continues Ryan. Your lactation consultant and Labor & Delivery care team offer continued support to help you take the best possible care of your baby.
[Editor’s Note: New to breastfeeding? Check out these tips for the first week on finding the right position, learning hunger cues, and more.]