Mother’s milk: a real treasure

Health Editor - Laleh Lohrasbi

The advice for mothers to breastfeed their new born babies was given 1400 years ago by the Qur’an. Today medical science is re-evaluating this practice. Laleh Lohrasbi discusses the latest advice coming from the medical world

In recent decades, particularly in the west, the rate of breastfeeding has dropped dramatically giving way to bottle feeding. The decline started in the late 1800s, due to the predominant attitude that breastfeeding is an old fashion and repulsive practice undertaken only by uneducated and lower class people who could not afford infant formula. In countries with royal families [mainly in Europe], women with royal blood were practically prohibited from breastfeeding, a job which was meant for the wet nurses. The royal infants were fed and looked after by the wet nurses and mothers only occasion¬ally took charge of their own children.
Later, as more women started working outside the house it gave another impetus to formula. In addition in the 19th century the discovery of the process of pasteurisation, which rendered cow milk safe for children, and later the introduction of powdered formula in the 20th century, all contributed to the increase in bottle feeding.
Another known reason for mothers not to breastfeed their babies is when the baby rejects breast milk, or mothers have painful breasts and feel that they have insufficient milk. On a socio-cultural level a study published in the journal of Human Lactation shows that cultural notions of the female breast as a sexual object place the act of breastfeeding in a controversial light and can be one of the most influential factors in a woman’s decision not to breastfeed. Some feminists go as far as believing that breastfeeding is tantamount to exploitation. They renounce breastfeeding as they consider motherhood slavery for women.
The reality is that today we know far more about the impact of breastfeeding and are obliged to consider it as a practical and beneficial action for the new-born baby. Scientific research has concluded that breast milk provides the ideal nutrition for infants. Breastfeeding benefits both mothers and their babies. Mother’s milk has a nearly perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat. Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight viruses and bacteria. Breastfeeding lowers the baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies. Moreover, babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months without any formula have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhoea. They also have fewer trips to the doctor.
Breastfeeding burns extra calories in the mother, so it can help her lose pregnancy weight faster. It also releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. It may also lower the risk of osteoporosis.
A more compelling reason to choose breastfeeding over the bottle is shown in a study published by Lancet Global Health in April 2015. It suggests that breastfeeding raises the IQ of the baby. Researchers believe breastfeeding is associated with improved performance in intelligence tests 30 years later, and might have an important effect in real life by increasing educational attainment and income in adulthood. This is because Breast milk is richer in the long-chain saturated fatty acids that are integral to brain development.
On a religious basis, Islam considers breastfeeding a child’s right and highly recommends that mothers carry out their duty. Islam grants a high status to mothers who put rights and wellbeing of their new borns first. ‘Mothers shall breastfeed their children for two whole years, for those who wish to complete the term’. (2:233)
Imam Jafar al-Sadiq(a) also says: ‘The period of the mother feeding the child should be a minimum of twenty one months. If someone feeds the child for a lesser period, it will be causing a hard¬ship to the child’.
Every woman’s milk is uniquely suited to meet the needs of her own baby. For example, the milk will be richer in the event of a premature birth, helping the baby to make up for his small size. The composition of the milk also changes from feed to feed and as the baby grows in order to meet the baby’s nutritional needs at each stage of his development. In addition, breast milk contains at least 100 ingredients and nutrients not found in formula.
Although formula is specially designed for human infants and has advantages compared to cow milk, it is still a distant second to breast milk. Children who are fed formula usually gain weight rapidly and stay full longer due to the slow rate of formula digestion. Formula almost has 50 kinds of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, nucleotides, amino acids and enzymes, but breast milk has more than 150 compounds of which more than half are not found in formula, including hormones and antibodies. The most important thing is that formula is a 20th-century invention and that babies since the beginning of time have thrived without it.
A 2010 infant feeding survey in the UK showed that 81 mothers in every 100 start breastfeeding, while after one week less than half of all new mothers were still exclusively breastfeeding and only one in every 100 managed the full recommended six months. Unfortunately despite all repeated public health recommendations, this rate has remained static for years. These numbers are almost the same for other western countries.
Other studies show that increase in breastfeeding could save the NHS £40m a year. Increase in breastfeeding cases in neonatal units from 7% to 75% could save the NHS £17 million per year only by reducing the incidence of common infant conditions, while the same increase could result in NHS savings of around £21 million in cases related to breast cancer.
The World Health Organisation along with other health authorities worldwide tries to encourage mothers to get back to breastfeeding their children. WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding starting within one hour after birth until baby is six months old. Nutritious complementary foods should then be added while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years or beyond.
The World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) of 2015 theme is working women and breastfeeding which revisits the 1993 WBW campaign on the same issue. Lots of effort has gone into supporting women in combining breastfeeding and work. More action has been taken to set up breastfeeding or mother-friendly workplaces and raising awareness on working women’s right to breastfeed. However it seems that after two decades, the desired result is still a long way off.

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