Why Is Breast Milk the Gold Standard

By: Michael Roizen, MD

December 1, 2016

When your child is born, there’s no question as to where baby’s first meal is coming from. There’s no “Let’s go to the baby-food court,” no ordering kid-sized lo mein with zucchini noodles or grilled salmon (newborn portion sizes, please) to the newborn nursery, no hoping for a baby-friendly helping of Grandma’s secret meatloaf.

Baby’s First Meal

Your body knows exactly what your baby needs and puts together the best possible cocktail in the form of breast milk, which contains protein, healthy fats, sugar, vitamins, minerals and some protective immune fighters. Breast milk will help your baby grow and enjoy good health. What might be most amazing is that the composition actually alters as your baby grows, adapting to her changing needs.

And yes, there’s clear evidence that breast milk helps to protect against infection, allergies, asthma, and many other conditions. If that’s not enough of a reason to breast-feed, consider that you give your baby—and lose from your waist—500 calories a day when nursing!

Breast milk is formed when you’re pregnant, the hormones estrogen and prolactin cause the milk glands and ducts in your breasts to increase in size. The glands are where the milk is produced, and the ducts are the tubes that carry the milk from the glands to the nipples. Toward the end of pregnancy, your body will form a substance called colostrum, a yellow, creamy “premilk” that’s full of proteins, vitamins, minerals and infection-fighting antibodies. Colostrum is enough to nourish your newborn until a couple days after birth; for most women, it is replaced by milk, and you’ll wake up with swollen breasts. When your milk comes in, your breasts will initially produce far more than your baby needs or can handle. As your hormones adjust and your baby establishes an eating pattern, you’ll produce the amount of milk your child needs.

Get Your Nutritional House In Order

Now, the most important thing to remember about breast-feeding is that not only are you passing along all the nutrients your child needs, but also some others that he may not need or want, courtesy of the foods and drinks that you’re consuming. So it’s essential to get your own nutritional house in order. For optimum nutrition, keep taking your prenatal vitamin and make sure to get enough of the following nutrients, deemed especially beneficial for improving your baby’s health, as they also support the quality of your breast milk:

  • Protein: two or three servings a day of skinless poultry (free of pesticides etc.), seafood (non-bottom-feeders and small fish; think wild—including canned—salmon, trout, mahi mahi), egg whites (actually this is the one time we say whole eggs are okay), low-fat dairy and soy. Fish protein is extremely healthy, but you should limit seafood to about two or three servings a week to avoid potential overconsumption of mercury and other trace elements. Salmon and trout are great sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, as well.
  • Calcium: 1,300 mg a day from supplements, low-fat dairy products and foods such as calcium-fortified orange juice, soy milk, tofu, broccoli, spinach, sardines, beans, sesame seeds, oranges. Consume no more than 600 mg in any two-hour period, because that’s the maximum your body can absorb at a time, either from food or from a supplement. Note: Do not take calcium supplements if you have kidney dysfunction.
  • Iron: 20 mg a day from poultry, seafood, dried beans and fruit, egg yolks. Your multivitamin often includes more than that, and that’s okay while you are pregnant, breast-feeding, or menstruating.
  • DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid—an essential fatty acid—an omega-3): This is key as you want to be called a fat head, and your baby to have that benefit too. More than 50 percent of your brain is fat and more than 50 percent is DHA. This fat has been shown key for mental development but especially for eyesight and visual processing. As a minimum, moms should get 600 mg a day. An algae source, available in most drugstores, is ideal, since it is free from ocean-borne contaminants that can cause concern during pregnancy and breast-feeding, and is very palatable in pill form.
  • ARA (Arachidonic acid—another essential fatty acid—an omega-6): ARA occurs naturally in breast-milk and science shows that it plays a key role in signaling inflammation and in immune function, and deficiency also results in reduced growth, reproductive failure, and liver, skin and hair abnormalities.
  • Vitamin C: 800 mg a day from citrus fruits, red peppers and/or broccoli.

Above all, aim to have a healthy, balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. I believe it’s best to eat five or six smaller meals throughout the day rather than have three larger ones. I also recommend that you avoid spicy or gas-inducing foods, as well as caffeinated beverages and alcohol.

Vitamin Supplements

If you’re breast-feeding, you should continue to take your prenatal supplement with multivitamins and DHA. Check with your pediatrician on the appropriate amount for your baby. This multivitamin preparation is important, as many infants become vitamin D3 deficient, which puts them at risk for the bone disease rickets. Breast milk lacks vitamin D3, and babies should not be exposed directly to sunlight, the only other way to get it.

In summary, breast is best. Mom’s hormones stimulate her body to produce milk. Nature’s perfect meal (if you have great nutrition—see above), breast milk gives a baby all of the nutrients he or she needs early in life.

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