Medical anthropologists have argued that that insofar as breast milk has nourished human children since the earliest known humans, breast-feeding must have distinct advantages for mothers, infants, and the whole human species. Butwhether a mother breast feeds her newborn child has been to a large extent influenced by specific cultural practices in relatively recent times. In much of 18th-century Europe, for example, it was considered unseemly to feed babiesat the breast or even to feed them milk. The great Viennese composer AmadeusMozart insisted that his babies be raised, as he was, on sugar water; not surprisingly, four of his six children died in the first three years of their lives. And medical historians have speculated that Mozart's early and tragic death may have been related to his sugar-water diet as an infant.
Newborn babies need about 50 calories per pound of body weight each day; thisrequirement drops to 45 calories by the infant's first birthday. But babiesare pretty good about signaling when they are hungry or full, so these numbers are of more referential than practical value. The best food for infants isbreast milk, and it is the only nutritional substance needed for the first six months of life.
Studies performed in a number of developed countries have shown that breast-fed infants have lower rates of diarrhea, respiratory infections, allergic problems, ear infections, meningitis, urinary tract infections and other diseases. This is because breast milk carries mother's antibodies in the colostrum and milk that are specific for the human species. Breast milk is also thoughtto provide protection against allergies later in life.
At birth, a baby carries his mother's immunity but is without a functional immune system of his own. At about 6 weeks, he begins to acquire his own immunesystem. At the age of 6 months, an immature immune system will help keep himhealthy and allergy free. Breast milk supplies the baby with all the immunities he needs until his own immune system is developed.
The composition of human milk changes to meet the changing needs of the maturing baby. Even when a baby is able to take solids, human milk remains the primary source of nutrition during the first year. Because it takes between twoand six years for a child's immune system to fully mature, human milk continues to boost the immune system as long as it is offered.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated breast-feeding since 1948. This organization has continued to revise its guidelines over the years and urge mothers to use human milk for infant nutrition. The Academy bases this recommendation on extensive research covering nutrition, the immune system, economic and psycho-social reasons, development and the environment. The Academyhas also reported that the longer children are breast-fed, the better they perform on reading, math, and cognitive tests; and they exhibit superior scholastic performance compared to their non-breast-fed peers. These results were based on a study of more than 1,000 children who were breast-fed for various lengths of time and some who were not breast-fed.
In order to produce breast milk, a lactating mother need only consumea healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, grains and proteins. She can obtain calcium from a variety of nondairy foods such as dark green vegetables, seeds, nuts and bony fish. Contrary to a popular misconception, it is not necessary to drink milk to make milk.
Women should not breast-feed their infants if they (the women) are taking medications that pass into breast-milk, or if they have certain infections suchas HIV, chickenpox, or active tuberculosis. If a mother cannot or is unwilling to breast feed her baby, infant formula may provide a satisfactory alternative to breast milk.
Even though breast-feeding is a natural process, many mothers who decide to breast-feed benefit from taking a breast-feeding class. Potential problems associated with breast-feeding include sore, swollen (engorged) breasts and/or cracked nipples. Both the La Leche League and the Nursing Mother's Breast-feeding Council provide information on breast-feeding. Most hospitals now have nurses who specialize in breast-feeding.
Breastfeeding is also advantageous to the mother; for example, it helps her lose weight more easily. A mother burns calories during milk production; and some of the weight gained during pregnancy is intended for lactation. Breastfeeding also releases a hormone in a woman's body that causes her uterus to return to its normal size and shape more quickly. Yet another hormone released during breastfeeding acts as a natural tranquilizer, promoting a sense of calmand well-being in the mother while she is breastfeeding.
A doctor's advice should be sought when switching from breast milk (or infantformula) to cow's milk. Some authorities advise waiting until the infant isat least one year old before making this transition.