There are many reasons – primarily cultural, such as ‘embarrassment’. We have seen stories of women being ridiculed for breastfeeding in public, while others have been asked to take down online pictures of their feeding. This is sad, given the overwhelming benefit of breastfeeding babies.
Of course we acknowledge that some mothers cannot breastfeed, or find it particularly difficult. But for those women lucky enough to have a choice, there are many reasons why they should.
Mothers start producing small amounts of a watery looking fluid shortly before a baby is born. This is ‘colostrum’ and is just right for the new-born baby. It’s high in protein and milk sugar (lactose) and low in fat, so easy for a baby’s sensitive gut to digest in the first few days after birth.
More importantly, colostrum is also rich in antibodies, passing from the mother to the baby to help fend off harmful infection from the baby’s strange new environment. This is what makes breast milk unique as there is no commercial way of ‘copying’ the protection that passes from mother to child.
This protection continues while a baby is being breastfed and is thought to be especially valuable in the first two weeks after birth, when the baby’s gut is maturing and adapting to the outside world. It helps to prevent ear and chest infections too.
‘Mature’ breastmilk follows and this opaque white fluid looks more like ‘milk’ as we know it. The calorie content of ‘mature’ milk is similar to cow, goat and sheep’s milk, but in every other respect is really quite different, especially in the type of protein and fat it contains.
In mature breastmilk, the main type of protein is easily digested ‘whey’. In unmodified cow’s milk the main protein is ‘casein’, which forms rubbery curds in the stomach and is actually the basis for cheesemaking. Remember little Miss Muffet eating her ‘curds and whey’? Great for hungry calves, but much too tough for our own little ones to digest.