Thrive and alive: Breast milk

The benefits of breastfeeding have been widely recognized by modern day health professionals and parents. There are even more amazing factors about breast milk. It has been evolving since the beginning of history, and is alive and thriving. 

That is what Dr. Philip Goscienski, a seasoned pediatric infectious diseases specialist, told his audience at a recent San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition general meeting. “If I could pass a law that asks every mother to breastfeed, I would do that,” said Dr. Goscienski at the the beginning of the speech, stating how convinced he is to the great benefits of breastfeeding. 

He discussed the intricate nutritional, microbial and immunologic relationship within the mother-infant dyad that has evolved since the origin of humans, pointing out several unique features of breast milk: It is species-specific; it is unique to the mother-infant dyad, which means one mother would produce different milk specifically for each of her children; it is modified by the gender of infant; it increases for multiple births, it changes significantly in preterm delivery. 

All of the features simply cannot be copied by infant formula. Moreover, there are many components of breast milk that are not found in cow’s milk formulas, including endorphins, lysozyme, secretory IgA, protective oligosaccharides, antioxidants, lactoferrin, cytokines ( immune cell stimulants), protective bacteria, and much more. 

These are important and magical components. Endorphins, for example, are higher in the breast milk of mothers who had a vaginal delivery than in mothers who went through a C-section. Endorphins can alleviate birth stress and facilitate infant-mother bonding. 

Other components also give infants a boost after birth. While infants have limited transplacental protection against infection, lysozeme in breast milk dissolves bacteria for babies, oligosaccharides block attachment of bacteria to the wall to the intestine and the lining of the throat, and secretory IgA adds a class of antibody to protect the baby. 

Breastfeeding infants also produce greater amounts of interferon, a class of protein produced in cells in response to infectious agents or cancer cells, or during influenza infection of the mother. 

Breast milk protects premature infants. Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is mostly found in premature infants and has a high mortality rate. However, NEC can be largely prevented by breast milk. For infants too small to nurse, doctors often Use expressed breast milk via tube feeding. 

Because breast milk has been evolving, not only modern breastfeeding is different from stone age breasfeeding, but every breastfeeding day is different. “If you send your husband to the grocery store and buy a package of infant formula, the formula he buys on Monday, Wednesday, Friday are all the same,” said Dr. Goscienski, “but the milk that you, the mother, produce on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are all different!” 

After giving birth, the mother first produces colostrum, the earliest milk, which is very high in protective antibodies. Then she produces transitional milk, which is higher in calories and helps the baby to gain weight during the first months after birth. After that the mother produces mature milk, which is lower in fat calories but contains more than 1,000 nutrients. 

Dr. Goscienski believes that even more critical nutrients will be discovered in breastmilk. He used live cells in breast milk as an example. Breast milk cells was first observed in 1844, and shown to kill bacteria and fungi. Today, there are still so many facts scientists don’t know about the cells, including why there are stem cells in breast milk. He also pointed out there are very few studies done on interferon, and experts expect to learn more significance about this protein in human milk.

*This post originally published on San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition's Newsletter on May 15, 2014. Photo credit to Mu-huan Chiang.