Sustainable, free, nutritious, healthy, always on tap and not plastic wrapped. What could be better for baby than its mother’s breast milk?

Babies have been breastfed since the dawn of time and through a process of evolution, the nutrients in milk have adapted to exactly meet a baby’s need for sustenance until the age of about six months.

In January 2018, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) published a new policy to encourage us all to support mothers to breastfeed.

So why is it that fewer women in the UK breastfeed compared to the rest of Europe and North America?

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.

Unlike cow’s milk, that’s high in ‘butterfat’, the type of fat in breast milk is rich in omega 3 and this has been shown to help the development of eye tissue in babies, to improve vision.

So breastmilk not only prevents infections, it promotes healthy growth and wellbeing too. For example, research shows that breastfed babies are more likely to be slimmer than bottle fed babies and, when they grow up, are likely to have a reduced risk of illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

There are other less obvious benefits for both mother and child. Breastfeeding creates a strong mother-child bond, helping to prevent post-natal depression.

Do fathers feel excluded? At times, they might, but they have the benefit of sleeping at night and, at 2am, it’s perhaps easier for mum to breastfeed than warm a bottle of milk. Another benefit for mum is the boost it provides to shedding those extra pounds gained when pregnant, evolution’s way of preparing us to feed our child.

Breastfeeding is also known to reduce the risk of breast cancer and possibly ovarian cancer too.

So if you see someone breastfeeding or you yourself are breastfeeding, ridicule and embarrassment should be as far away from your mind as possible. Consider all of the incredible work being done and celebrate the fact that a child is being protected and equipped with the best nutrients possible.

For further information on breastfeeding, visit the BDA website.

Breastfeeding factsheet

BDA The Association of UK Dietitians, have produced an informative factsheet on breastfeeding babies, its benefits and how to access support and further information.