It’s liquid gold for your baby, but do you know just why breast milk is so incredible? From boosting immunity to pain relief our breast milk facts will blow you away.
First things first: when it comes to caring for your baby, we are of the opinion that Fed is Best. If you are struggling to breastfeed, you’re exhausted, or formula is simply your preferred choice, feeding your baby is the most important thing, however you do it. The Breast is Best message doesn’t take into account your personal circumstances, or what’s best for your family situation. It’s important not to add formula feeding to the list of things you experience mum guilt about (because, boy, do we like to beat ourselves up enough as it is).
But that said, nothing can take away from the scientific evidence that shows breast milk is the nutritionally superior option – not to mention the only safe way of feeding a baby in places where access to clean water and sterilising equipment is not available. And wow, is breast milk incredible! Read on to discover 25 amazing facts about breast milk and breastfeeding – all of which might help you through those late night feeds:
1. Breast milk is the perfect ready meal for your baby
Once breastfeeding is established, there really is nothing simpler. No washing up, sterilising or waiting for the kettle to boil (or the milk to cool) – breast milk is available for your baby on demand, served at the correct temperature and with no delay, every time. Talk about fast food!
2. Breast milk contains all the nutrients your baby needs to thrive
Breast milk contains all the carbohydrate, protein, fats, and vitamins and minerals that your baby needs in order to thrive (in fact, it contains more than 200 different types of fatty acids and more than 400 different types of protein!). Plus, being 87 per cent water, it’s the only liquid your baby needs until weaning, when water can be introduced.
3. Its taste changes depending on what you’ve eaten
Breast milk is inherently sweet, with a creamy (albeit thin) consistency. But rather than having a uniform flavour, its taste changes depending on what you’ve eaten. This is great news when it comes to weaning, as your baby’s palate will have already been exposed to a range of flavours. In fact, science supports this. In a 2017 study, researchers found that the flavour of different vegetable juices was present in a mother’s milk and, what’s more, the babies who were exposed to these flavours more readily accepted the puréed foods when weaned.
4.. The composition of breast milk constantly changes
Breast milk is clever stuff and, as your baby grows, so its composition changes, in order to fully meet your baby’s needs at all times. After your baby is born until about day three, your body will make colostrum. This ‘liquid gold’ is high in protein and packed full of vitamins and minerals, as well as white blood cells to help fight off infection, and is the ideal first start for your baby. After about three days, your body will switch to producing transitional milk (although colostrum will still be present), which is when you’ll feel your milk ‘come in’. This will last for about two weeks until finally your body produces mature milk. This isn’t the end of the changes, however – the composition of your mature milk will change roughly each week, to keep up with the needs of your growing baby.
5. Breast milk’s composition changes during a feed
When your baby begins to feed, they will at first be drinking the ‘thinner’ fore milk. This acts more like a drink and is the perfect thirst quencher for your baby. Then, as they continue to suck, they will begin to access the hind milk. This has a higher fat content, designed to satisfy your baby’s energy demands. Sometimes your baby might just be thirsty, meaning they may not feed for long, while other times their body may require the equivalent of a three course meal! It’s important to be guided by your baby at each feed – they know their own requirements.
6. Breast milk boosts immunity
Your breast milk is packed with white blood cells, ready to help your baby fight off infection. On top of this, if you get poorly, your body will begin to make antibodies designed to fight that particular infection. These will then get passed to your baby via your milk, helping to keep them safe. Scientists have recently discovered that women who have recovered from Covid-19 have significant levels of SARS-CoV-2-specific IgA antibodies in their breast milk, which will protect your baby. But want to hear something really clever? If your baby picks up a bug (and you don’t), they will transfer the germs to you through their saliva when they feed, and your body will then set to work making the exact antibodies they need, which you will then feed back to them, to help them get better. Magic!
7. Breast milk can help wounds heal faster
Breast milk is said to have anti-inflammatory properties, and has been purported to be able to help with the healing of everything from minor wounds and burns to conjunctivitis.
8. Breast milk can soothe your baby to sleep
Apparently it’s a myth that bottle-fed babies will sleep better – breastfeeding, in fact, comes up trumps when it comes to getting some shut eye. Its not just the soothing sucking motion that can help to get your baby off to the land of nod – the level of the hormone serotonin actually increases in your breast milk towards the end of the day – and serotonin is responsible for that lovely sleepy feeling, helping to regulate your baby’s circadian rhythm. According to research, ‘night’ milk also contains higher levels of the proteins known as neucleotides, which stimulate GABA, a sleep-inducing hormone.
9. Breast milk is unique
Your breast milk is as unique as your baby – it’s designed by your body to meet their needs exactly, so it will be unlike any other mother’s milk.
10. It even has its own unique smell!
Even more unique is your breast milk’s scent. Your baby has a good sense of smell and can tell that your milk is meant for them.
11. Breast milk contains stem cells
Stem cells are the cells from which all other specialised cells (blood, bone or brain cells, for example) are formed. And guess what? They are found within breast milk. Dr Foteini Kakulas (formerly Hassiotou), of The University of Western Australia, found in a 2012 study (with mice) that stem cells were not only present, but that they remained alive in a baby’s stomach and were also found to have been transported to the blood, thymus, liver, pancreas, spleen and brain, where they had become functionally integrated and were producing specialised proteins.
12. Breast milk can kill cancer cells
As well as fending off germs, breast milk also has the ability to kill up to 40 different types of cancer cells – a discovery made by chance while researchers were investigating the antibacterial properties of breast milk. It’s all down to a substance called HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells), which comprises a protein and fatty acid that naturally occur in breast milk. While HAMLET may not be present in breast milk itself, the theory is that it is formed in the acidic environment of the baby’s stomach. Clever stuff.
13. Breast milk contains painkillers
Want to help ease the pain your baby may feel from vaccinations, or soothe a toddler with a grazed knee? Breastfeed them! As well as nutrients, white blood cells, antibodies, stem cells and cancer killers, breast milk also contains endocannabinoids (before you panic, they’re not the same cannabinoids as found in cannabis). Breast milk actually contains 12 different endocannabinoids, the most abundant of which is 2-AG, which helps to regulate the immune system has anti-inflammatory properties, and stimulates the sucking response in babies.
14. Breast milk changes depending on the sex of your baby (and how wealthy you are)
It seems incredible, but the sex of your baby can determine the composition of the milk your body makes, as can your own wealth. In a study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, researchers found that mothers in rural Kenya produced richer milk for boys if they were more well off (2.8 per cent fat compared with 1.74 per cent for baby girls), while poorer mothers produced richer milk for daughters (2.6 per cent compared with 2.3 per cent for baby boys). The theory is that natural selection favours parental investment in boys when times are easy, but in girls when times are hard.
15. Milk production is linked with love
Ever found that your breasts leak milk even from just looking at your baby, or hearing a baby cry? It’s down to the hormone oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’), which causes the milk ducts to contract. Oxytocin also plays a part during sex and orgasms.
16. Breastfeeding is good for your health, too
Research has shown that if you breastfeed for four to 12 months you reduce your risk of developing breast cancer by 11 per cent. If you continue to breastfeed for more than 24 months, this risk reduces by a whopping 25 per cent! Studies have also found that women who breastfeed have a reduced risk of developing ovarian cancer.
17. Nipples have many openings
Before you begin breastfeeding, it might be unclear where the milk actually comes out from. Some people envisage one hole, a bit like a bottle teat. In reality, nipples have up to 18 openings (or ducts), although the average number is nine.
18. Left or right boob?
Apparently, almost 75 per cent of mothers produce more milk in their right breast, regardless of whether they are right or left handed. It’s unclear why this is the case, although one theory is that if either you or your baby has a preference for feeding on one side, you will likely begin to produce more milk in that breast if you feed from it more often, or for longer.
19. Breastfeeding needs to be learned
Breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed your baby, but that doesn’t mean it always comes easy, so if you’re struggling don’t despair. Spending time around other mothers who are successfully breastfeeding their babies is a great way to learn before your baby is born, as evidenced by zookeepers in the 80s (yes, really). When a young gorilla who had been raised apart from her mother gave birth, she had no idea how to feed or care for her baby, as she had never witnessed breastfeeding. Second time round, zookeepers contacted La Leche League for advice, who supported the gorilla by sending volunteer mums to breastfeed in front of her, both during her pregnancy and after her baby was born, with great success.
20. Breastfeeding shouldn’t hurt
Many new mums find breastfeeding uncomfortable or even painful at first. However, once you’ve got used to the new sensation, it shouldn’t hurt at all. If you’re experiencing discomfort, pain, chafing, damage or bleeding, it’s important to get support from your midwife, health visitor or lactation consultant as soon as possible, to help minimise damage, and get you and your baby back on track. Often, you will just need to make minor adjustments to baby’s position or latch, but a specialist will be able to diagnose tongue tie or other potential issues.
21. Breastfeeding helps regulate your babies temperature
If you breastfeed your baby, you’ll be gaining that all-important skin-to-skin contact, which helps your baby thermoregulate as a newborn. In fact, a study has shown that babies who are placed skin-to-skin with their mothers during the first hours of their life remain considerably warmer than newborns who are swaddled and cuddled by their mother. So strip down with your baby, snuggle under a blanket together and get some quality bonding time during a feed.
22. Breastfeeding can protect your child later in life
While the World Health Organization (WHO) promotes breastfeeding as a way of improving a child’s health in the first two years of life, it also states that growing evidence suggests breastfeeding offers long-term protective benefits, too, including against noncommunicable disease risk, such as obesity. Other conditions breastfeeding may protect against include high blood pressure, eczema and asthma, with a 2017 review concluding that, in children who have asthma, those who had been breastfed had a statistically significantly lower risk of asthma exacerbations later in life, compared with asthmatic children who had not been breastfed.
23. Breast milk is best for the environment
It goes without saying that exclusive breastfeeding is carbon neutral and zero waste. In a peer-reviewed study conducted at Imperial Collage London, researchers found that, taking into account production methods and the methane production/water consumption of cows, breastfeeding exclusively for six months saves up to 153kg of CO2 per baby.
24. Breast milk can be frozen
If you’re expressing your milk, or wish to store some for future use, it can be kept in a freezer for up to six months, providing it is kept at a temperature of -18C. You can store it in sterilised containers or special breast milk store bags. Store in small quantities, to avoid waste. When you need to use it, defrost slowly in the fridge or, if you need it immediately, in a jug of warm water. It can be given cold, or can be warmed in a jug of warm water (do not use a microwave, to avoid hotspots). Never refreeze milk once it has been defrosted, and throw away anything not drunk within one hour.
25. You can donate your breast milk
Donated breast milk is vital to help save the lives of premature and very sick babies, whose mothers, for whatever reason, are unable to provide breast milk. If you’re interested, please visit UKAMB for more information. There, you can find out where your closest milk bank is. They will be able to send you a questionnaire, and they will help you arrange a blood test (to check for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis and HTLV) to check you can donate. Once you’re good to go, the milk bank will send you bottles to start storing and freezing your milk.
Breastfeeding is a skill that takes time to learn for both you and baby, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come naturally at first. If you experience pain, latch problems or you have any breastfeeding concerns at all, there are lots of resources available so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try one of the following:
- LCGB: Local breastfeeding counsellors or lactation specialists.
- Baby cafes: a breastfeeding drop-in run by skilled facilitators.
- National Breastfeeding Helpline: phone and webchat support.
- NCT infant feeding line: phone support.
- La Leche League: information, groups and online or telephone advice.