The decision to breastfeed your baby is a personal one. Nursing your baby provides him with all the nutrients that are required. It also contains a rich supply of immune components. Breast milk is therefore the perfect first gift a mother can give her child following birth. Human milk is uniquely tailored by nature to satisfy the nutritional needs of a baby. Breast milk is made of water, fat, proteins, lactose, vitamins, minerals such as calcium and phosphate, immune cells and antibodies. Adding to the wow factor is that all of these constituents are present in the exact proportions needed. It also carries antibodies against a variety of diseases, provides immediate heightened protection against ear and respiratory infections, and guards against diarrhoea.
Statistics even show that children who had been breastfed as babies have a higher IQ than those who had not. A study carried out at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 2008 was the largest randomised trial ever conducted in the area of human lactation, provided strong evidence that prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding improves children's cognitive development. The same trial in 2003 had also concluded that babies who were exclusively breastfed tended to gain weight and height much faster in the first 12 months compared to their counterparts that had either been bottle-fed or had a combination of breastfeeding and bottle feeding.
The milk that is produced five days following birth is known as the colostrum. This milk contains less fat and the sugar lactose. However, it does contain much higher concentrations of immuno-protective components. One of the many immune components are antibodies. Some might argue that infants acquire antibodies, which are one of the many weapons we have to fight infections and harmful pathogens while we are still growing and developing in our mother's tummy.
This is correct and we have these weapons smuggled to us via the placenta. The bad news is they are short lived and will not be of much use following the first bungee jump of birth into this exciting world. Breast milk therefore provides the newborn with immune cells such as lymphocytes and macrophages and specific antibodies such as IGA, which are directed against the pathogens in the environment of the mother and subsequently that of the newborn baby as well.
So the baby is not just able to fight any infections, but specifically those he is likely to encounter in his own environment in the first fragile few weeks and months of its life. Breast milk also provides non-specific immunity in the form of mucus. Mucus is able to adhere to the pathogens, which are then eliminated via faecal deposits. Lactoferrin is another important component of breast milk. Lactoferrin decreases availability of iron thereby inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria as shown in a study at Osaka Ohtani University in Japan.
Breastfeeding reduces or even eliminates food allergies and eczema. One study found babies who are breastfed for less than six months have seven times the incidence of allergies as those who are breastfed for more than that time. In addition, research carried out in 2008 on 186 children at the University Hospital Virgin of Arrixaca in Murcia, Spain, had concluded that breastfeeding significantly reduced childhood cancers, the protection increasing with the longer spans of full breastfeeding. Endorphins, chemicals that help suppress pain, are found in abundance in breast milk, too. The health visitor in the UK advised my wife to squeeze a few drops of breast milk into my daughter's eyes at the time when she was suffering with an eye infection. It worked a treat.
Mothers also reap the benefits of breastfeeding. There is strong evidence that breastfeeding provides protection against breast, uterine, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Women who were breastfed as infants, even if only for a short time, showed an approximate 25 per cent lower risk of developing premenopausal or postmenopausal breast cancer, compared to women who were bottle-fed as an infant. A reduced risk of osteoporosis, or brittle bones, is significant in breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding encourages uterine contractions after childbirth, returning the uterus to its pre-pregnancy size much faster. It has been shown that the uteruses of formula-feeding mothers sometimes never return to the pre-pregnancy state. Breastfeeding also boosts prolactin levels, a hormone that enhances feelings of nurturing and contentment levels, and speeds up weight loss after birth. Prolactin levels not only rise due to the baby suckling, but also in response to the baby's cry.
Breastfeeding boosts the mother's self-esteem and morale at a time when she could feel very vulnerable and may even be suffering from postnatal depression. She feels she is able to respond to her baby's needs and therefore increases her confidence in her ability to parent and nurture. At a time when many are trying to do their bit to protect the environment, what better and more environmentally friendly way to do so than to breastfeed your baby? Without plastic, rubber and glass bottles, plus packaging, means less consumption of resources and less waste sent to landfill.
So why do many women shy away from breastfeeding? The sleepless nights associated with breastfeeding combined with the fact that many women today hold demanding jobs with equally demanding schedules are just two of the many reasons why some women choose not to breastfeed. Some may also be worried that their milk is not good enough to satisfy the hunger of their newborn. But, in fact, the quality and quantity of breast milk is adaptive to the baby's nutritional needs.
Between 2000 and 2006, 34 per cent of babies in the UAE less than six months old were breastfed. With health benefits in mind, one might hope to see a rise in this figure in the near future, and the Government has provided easy access to breastfeeding facilities in shopping malls and government buildings. But doctors and nurses must also play a supportive role for mothers-to-be, and new mothers need to be aware what they eat and drink while pregnant and while breastfeeding will find its way into their breast milk and subsequently to their newborn.
Breast milk is safe, fresh, perfectly clean, the right temperature and instantly available, and it is a baby's most nutritious food for the lowest cost. Usama Alalami is an associate professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi