It’s World Breastfeeding Week, aiming to highlight the benefits of breastfeeding your baby. Breast milk supports your baby’s health in many ways, some of them lasting a lifetime.
Read on to discover the importance of breast milk to your baby.
Despite many public health campaigns highlighting the benefits of breast milk and urging mothers to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of their baby’s life, many women aren’t able to breastfeed for as long as they want. This can be due to factors like limited maternity leave and the lack of support to continue breastfeeding within the workplace.
According to UNICEF, the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with just 17% of babies being exclusively breastfed at three months. This declines to 1% at six months old, according to a 2010 study. Younger mothers are less likely to breastfeed than older mothers.
Breast milk delivers the ideal mix of vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and sugars designed to keep your baby healthy. It contains substances supporting your baby’s immune system and helping fight off harmful viruses and bacteria.
But did you know breast milk is also packed full of a myriad of healthy bacteria?
Within your intestines live a complex ecosystem of micro-organisms like bacteria, viruses and fungi, collectively called your microbiome. They don’t simply ensure your digestive system is happy, but they interact with your immune system and emit messenger substances keeping your whole body healthy. You also have microbiomes living elsewhere in your body, in your mouth and on your skin, for example.
Most of the time you’d never know it’s there, but your microbiome is the most important factor determining whether you’re healthy or unhealthy. Disturbances in your microbiome can lead to immune issues, allergies, digestive problems, cardiovascular disease and mood disturbances and can even mean you’re more likely to be obese.
At birth, your baby’s gut will contain very few bacteria. Some of your microbiome will be picked up by your baby from your vaginal wall during birth, but the majority of bacteria making up your baby’s first microbiome are passed over in your breast milk.
The initial seeding of your baby’s microbiome is really important because after around two to three years old, the microbiome becomes relatively stable. So early life is a unique opportunity to establish the basis of a healthy microbiome. A balanced microbiome is one containing a good range of different micro-organisms, comprising the ‘must-have’ bacterial strains known to be beneficial to health.
Breastfed babies have been found to have healthier microbiomes than formula-fed babies. Formula food contains no bacteria at all. Formula-fed babies will develop very different microbiomes to breastfed babies, possibly predisposing them to health conditions both in infancy and later in life.
Babies with disordered microbiomes suffer more frequently from asthma, allergies, ear infections, skin problems, digestive problems and respiratory illnesses. Babies who are breastfed are less likely to become overweight or obese, and breastfeeding is linked to better scores on intelligence tests.
Breastfeeding appears to be particularly protective for premature babies, who are otherwise at higher risk of intestinal inflammation.
Around 10% of the bacteria in your baby’s microbiome is inherited from your skin during feeds. This means it’s better to feed directly from your breast whenever possible, rather than expressing your milk and using a bottle.
Although how bacteria get into breast milk isn’t clear, it’s believed they make their way there from the microbiome in your gut, possibly via the immune system. It seems the gut microbiome acts as a master microbiome, influencing microbiomes all over your body from your mouth to your vagina.
Because your microbiome is unique to you, your baby will inherit its own unique bacterial population based closely on yours. Researchers believe similar microbiomes can be passed down over successive generations. If your gut microbiome isn’t in great shape your baby won’t inherit a healthy microbiome. This highlights the importance of making sure your microbiome is in tip-top condition from the time you first start planning a family through to breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is an emotive issue, with many mothers feeling pressurised to continue even when things aren’t going well, and guilty if they’re unable to. However, even though breastfeeding for at least six months is considered the gold standard, any amount of breastmilk is beneficial, especially early on in your baby’s life.
I’m here to support you at any stage in your journey through motherhood. Functional testing can reveal if your microbiome is in good shape, or if it could use some loving care. Personalised dietary, supplement and lifestyle recommendations will ensure you’re passing on the gift of health, in your breastmilk, to benefit your baby’s wellbeing throughout life. Contact me to find out more about the benefits of breastfeeding.
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