A large part of breastfeeding falls under what I'll call the "Grandmotherly Mystique." Breastfeeding was "good for baby" because Grandma said it was (or that it wasn't.) The number of infants getting breastfed has varied widely from one time of history to another largely depending on social norms and the shifting sands of medical opinion. For some cultures, like our present American culture, flashes of exposed breasts in public is scandalous and there are not-so subtle pressures to "cover up" and/or not breastfeed. Some of us remember the Nestle's scandal in the 1980's where formula was being dumped in developing countries where clean water sources were scarce and Nestle's had a huge information campaign to convince mothers in those countries to give up breastfeeding for the "better than mom" infant formula. In spite of what formula manufacturers have claimed, we have known for a long time that cow's milk and all the store-bought formulas have not been as good for infants as their moms' own breast milk. But "not as good as" has been more in the realm of faith, quite subjective, and details have been difficult to pin down. But, science is not to be thwarted.
Recent research projects have discovered the following differences in human breast milk:
- The protein profile of human milk contains 1606 different proteins compared to only 515 in rhesus macaque milk. Many of these additional proteins seem related to aiding digestion and absorption for the less developed human infant.
- The fatty acid profile of human milk has a high level of DHA and ARA -- two fatty acids that play large roles in neurological development.
- The cellular genetic structure of infants' intestinal tract that are breast fed is substantially different from those babies fed alternatives.
- "Good bacteria" colonize breastfed babies digestive tracts better than those fed alternatives.
All of these discoveries point to possible reasons why it's been observed that breastfed infants, as a general rule, tend to thrive with fewer problems than their formula-fed neighbors.
Formula manufacturers are taking notice. Many of them are working on incorporating additional proteins, fats, and bacteria into their products. Sadly, while this improves the nutrition for babies fed these formulas it leaves those babies born into poverty without them. Of course, hopefully those babies will still have mom and get the real deal.
My advice remains the same as it's been for twenty years, breastfeed your babies if there is any way possible in God's green earth for at least 6 months and 18-24 months isn't too long.
NatureWords for Health,