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20 Incredible Facts About Breast Milk
December 14th, 2010
As the debate about the values of breastfeeding wages on, more scientific studies are conducted that ultimately prove — or at least very convincingly make their case — that breast milk isn't just a great source of nutrition: it may also influence things like the immune system, IQ, and healthy eating habits later in life. But even the nutrition part is pretty cool, too. Breast milk is full of all the nutrients that your baby needs, without going overboard. It adapts to your own diet and feeding schedule, and actually changes in composition several times a day. If you're a new mom or a nurse who's working with pregnant and nursing mothers, here are 20 incredible facts about breast milk that might change what you think about breastfeeding.
- A drop in hormones triggers breast milk: Most people think of pregnant women being as being hopped up on hormones, but as the body is born (removing the placenta), a major drop in hormones occurs. This allows a hormone called prolactin to activate, which signals to your breasts that it's milk-making time.
- Breastfeeding might lower risk for childhood obesity: A couple of years ago, a study broke that proposed breastfeeding leads to better eating habits in preschool aged children. Kids who were bottle-fed — even if they were drinking pumped breast milk — were less able to tell when they were full, so they kept eating. It's more of a behavioral link, scientists believe, than a nutritional one.
- Breast milk needs water: Women who breast feed are more thirsty than normal, and the USDA recommends that they drink one glass of water for every breastfeeding session.
- Breast milk glands grow during the second trimester: Your breasts get ready to produce milk during the second trimester when sac-like glands grow, thanks to an increase in estrogen, lactogen, and other hormones. Once your baby is born and starts suckling, prolactin is activated, which then spurs on another hormone called oxytocin, which actually releases milk.
- Breast milk can't be duplicated: Breast milk is always changing, and it can't be duplicated. No two mothers have the same breast milk, and breast milk taken from one woman during one part of the day won't even be the same as a sample taken from the same woman later in the day.
- Milk changes during each feeding: That's because the actual make-up of your breast milk changes from feeding to feeding. When your baby first starts feeding, your milk contains mostly lactose and proteins, and is a bluish color. At the end of the feeding, your baby starts drinking hindmilk, which is mostly made up of fat and gives your baby the calories it needs.
- Breast milk contains two major types of protein: Your breast milk contains two main types of protein, called whey and casein. There's more whey protein than casein, and it has the greatest infection-fighting powers. If you use formula, make sure the whey-to-casein protein matches natural breast milk, or your baby could have a higher chance of infections and have trouble digesting milk.
- Your breasts will always produce just enough milk: Remarkably, your breasts will only produce as much milk as your baby needs, no more and no less. When you start breastfeeding, your breasts will start producing more milk, but as feedings slow down, your body just naturally stops producing it.
- Your breast milk contains only as many vitamins as you take yourself: One common misconception about breast milk is that it's inherently superior to formula, simply because it's natural. But breast milk only contains the vitamins that are already in your body, which is why it's important for pregnant and nursing women to take supplements and eat a healthy diet to get enough Vitamin A, D, E, K, C, riboflavin, niacin and panthothenic acid.
- Alcohol is present in your breast milk: If you plan on breastfeeding, you need to be conscious of your alcohol intake even after you give birth. Alcohol is present in your breast milk, just as it is in your blood stream. Drinking isn't prohibited, but it's recommended that you have only a drink or two a few hours before breast feeding so that your body can metabolize the alcohol. If you drink more, pump your breast milk so that feedings aren't interrupted and your baby's health isn't compromised.
- Fresh breast milk lasts up to 8 hours at room temperature: It lasts 5-7 days in the refrigerator, too, but just make sure it's labeled to ensure freshness and avoid any accidents involving dunking Oreos into it.
- You can freeze it: You can also freeze breast milk if you've got extra time to do some pumping and are afraid you won't be able to meet regularly scheduled feedings because of an out-of-town trip or work commitment. You can freeze breast milk in a freezer-safe container for up to 3-4 months in a regular freezer, and up to 6 months in a deep freezer set at 0.
- Microwaving breast milk isn't the best option: Don't ever microwave breast milk to heat it up or thaw it, though. Because a microwave heats unevenly, the milk might get too hot in one spot, even though you've tested it safely in another.
- Each nipple has 15-20 openings to release milk: Each nipple has tiny little openings that release breast milk, about 15-20, doctors estimate.
- Colostrum, or early milk, releases slowly: When your baby's tummy is at its smallest — the first few days after birth — your "early milk," called colostrum, is released in tiny amounts, so as not to overfill your baby. It's high in protein and antibodies from the mother — it contains three times as much as mature milk — but low in fat and sugar, which your baby doesn't really need in the first few days.
- You can cross-feed: Wet nurses may have died out in the U.S. for the most part, but cross-feeding is still possible. Some moms don't like that they don't get to experience the emotional bonding time with their baby if they use a wet nurse, but for busy moms who don't want to pump, it's a viable option. Some moms even cross-feed, switching babies among groups of nursing moms to satisfy hectic working schedules or even accommodate for breast surgeries.
- You can make cheese with it: It might sounds nauseating to you, but one prominent New York chef used his wife's breast milk to make cheese and serve it in his restaurant. The New York Health Department quickly banned it, but a food critic from The Daily Beast was on a mission to try it anyway, finding that, although "it is quite bland, slightly sweet…It's the unexpected texture that's so off-putting. Strangely soft, bouncy, like panna cotta."
- Breast milk boosts IQ: In addition to lowering the risk of childhood obesity, breast milk may boost IQ in nursing infants, scientists believe. Their IQs may even reach 8 points higher than babies who aren't breast fed, especially in verbal evaluations. It's a two-part hypothesis: the nutrients in breast milk helps brain development and mental skills while the actual act of breast feeding is an intimate experience that aids baby development, too.
- Breast milk is the best medicine: Babies receive all the nutrients and disease-fighting powers they need from breast milk, which helps keep infections and other illnesses at bay. If you switch between bottle feedings and breast milk, babies won't get the same benefits, and breast feeding for six months is recommended to stave off infections for the first year. And after that? This woman squirted breast milk into her preschool-aged daughter's eye to cure pink eye. She recovered quickly with no meds, but a scientific study hasn't been scheduled to follow up.
- Milk composition changes during the day: Just as your milk changes during each feeding, its composition also changes throughout the day, affecting the number of calories your baby gets during nursing sessions. Another factor that might influence milk composition is the mother's diet, which can determine how much fat and calories are then passed on to the baby.