Breast feeding is critical to the health of newborns. Nowhere else on the planet can you find a perfect match for breast milk, a substance that is specially formulated to protect each unique baby from illness. This protection comes in the form of antibodies, the disease fighting elements in a woman’s body, that are custom formulated to protect against the sicknesses in her current environment.
The antibodies in the mother’s system can pass directly through breast milk to the baby, and particularly in the first 24 hours, the baby is able to absorb them directly into his or her immune system. These antibodies increase baby’s chance to resist disease and allow all energy to be directed toward healthy growth and development.
There may even be protection against certain kinds of cancer through the ability of a baby to absorb these antibodies unchanged in the first hours of life. Once the baby develops the ability to secrete hydrochloric acid in the stomach, some of these protein antibodies will not be as well absorbed.
The early hours after birth are especially valuable as a window of opportunity for extra protection from antibodies. For this reason, breastfeeding early and often is encouraged by most “Baby Friendly” hospitals. The magical first hour of a baby’s life allows the baby to go through nine important developmental steps toward successful breastfeeding.
Formula companies attempt to copy breast milk and they only contain the minimum requirements for baby’s survival. Formula preparations do not contain the special, antibodies that every mother can custom make for her special baby. New, essential building blocks for infant health are being discovered in breast milk each year.
Science is discovering more and more highly specialized elements in breast milk including certain fatty acids, such as DHA, that are critical for development of the babies’ brain. Babies develop up to two-thirds of the portion of their brains involved with higher thinking, called the cortex, during the first year of life.
Nature conserves on the size of the brain while baby is inside the mother, focusing on developing the key command centers, and laying down a blueprint for later development. Once the baby is born, and room for its head is no longer an issue, the brain will grow very rapidly. For this reason, nutrition in the first year of infant life is extremely critical.
Pediatricians recommend a full year of breastfeeding for optimal health. Babies can continue to drink breast milk, even after other foods are introduced into the diet.One of the best features for mother is that while she is providing the best of all possible nutrition for her baby, she is also providing herself with maximum protection from breast cancer. The single greatest protective measure a woman can provide for herself is built into the breastfeeding process.
Even breastfeeding just one baby can give a woman a lifetime reduction in breast cancer risks. For maximum protection, giving each baby a chance to breastfeed for at least four months minimum, with 12 months or more as the ideal, decreases her lifetime cancer risks. Every 12 months of a woman’s life that she breastfeeds can lower her risk by 4.3 percent.
According to a Lancet 2002 article, each baby a woman has lowers her risk of breast cancer by 7 percent. One reason is that pregnancy turns on an anti-cancer gene called “p53” that is in the nucleus of female cells. This gene is particularly important in breast tissue cells because it helps prevent abnormal cell growth and runaway cell growth is what we call cancer.
Programs such as the Department of Health’s Women, Infants and Children are essential to helping pregnant women and moms provide good nutrition for themselves and their children. A team of nutritionists and educators can be contacted at 241-3080 for more information and requirements.
Virginia Beck, NP, Women’s Health & Wellness, West Kauai Clinic 335-0579, West Kauai Medical Center.