As we celebrate the World Breast Feeding Week, here is a reaffirmation of the richness of mother’s milk

Someone has rightly called breastfeeding nature’s health plan, a gift whose effects last a lifetime. Not only does mother’s milk contain a unique combination of nutrients and vitamins essential for a child’s optimum physical and mental growth, it is also loaded with antibodies and probiotics that offer protection from several illnesses.

According to the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) guidelines published by UNICEF, infants should be fed nothing but mother’s milk – not even water, sugar water, or juices – for the first six months of life to achieve maximum growth and development. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional needs, they should receive safe and adequate complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.

Experts say that many of the health problems grown-up children face, such as diarrhoea, ear infections (a major reason for infants taking antibiotics), allergies and respiratory infections, might be reduced or even prevented if they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.

Explains Dr. AP Dubey, Director Professor and Head, Department of Pediatrics, Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, “Mother’s milk is complete food for infants during first six months of life. It is essential for their mental and physical growth. It contains all essential nutrients for the child and provides enough calories for energy. Many research studies have shown that breastfed babies have better IQ levels and do much better on parameters of development and growth compared to those not breastfed. If children are not given mother’s milk, they are prone to develop nutritional deficiencies, malnutrition, and health problems like diarrhoea and pneumonia.”

Agrees Dr. Satish Saluja, Consultant Neonatologist, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi, “Mother’s milk is very important for children because it has ingredients that promote their optimal physical and mental growth. Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of infections and allergy, protecting them from various illnesses.”

UNICEF guidelines recommend that breastfeeding be initiated within the first hour of birth. Colostrum, also called first milk, occurs during pregnancy and lasts for three or four days after birth. Yellowish and thick, it is considered a high-octane diet for the child, rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. An important role of colostrum is to pass on antibodies from mother to baby to provide passive immunity. This is crucial as the child’s immune system is still undeveloped and vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections. Colostrum also has a laxative effect that helps the child pass first stool and clear the intestines.

Mother’s milk is 90 per cent water and fulfils the infant’s need for hydration. The rest 10 percent contains carbohydrates (lactose), proteins, and fats. Amazingly, as the infant grows, its composition keeps changing over the months to maintain the perfect balance of nutrients the child needs. It is also totally safe against infections, is non-allergic, always remains at the right temperature, needs no prior preparation or storage, is easy to digest and readily available with the mother even when she travels outside home with the child.

Breastfeeding has tremendous psychological benefits too for both mother and child. It helps form a strong emotional bond between them due to the release of oxytocin — the “love hormone.” The bond so forged continues to play an important role in the baby’s development over the years.