Breastmilk has all the necessary nutrients needed for the newborn or infant (see Figure 4.4). This is true even if the mother is not taking adequate amounts of the nutrients for her own needs. Moreover it is free of contamination and does not need any preparation. It is also self-regulatory; breastmilk secretion occurs based on the need of the infant, so if there is more feeding there will be more secretion. If the mother tries to introduce supplementary food such as formula milk early in the life of the baby (as early as under four months), there will be replacement of the clean, nutritious breastmilk by formula or cow’s milk which is more likely to be contaminated, resulting in increased risk of infection. Therefore, breastmilk should be considered to be a whole food for the infant because it contains balanced proportions and a sufficient quantity of all the nutrients needed for the first six months. Box 4.1 summarises the key benefits of breastfeeding for the baby.
Box 4.1 Nutritional benefits of breastfeeding.
- Breastmilk is always clean
- Breastmilk is always ready and at the right temperature
- Breastmilk is easy to digest
- Nutrients are easily absorbed from breastmilk
- Breastmilk protects against allergies
- Breastmilk antibodies protect the baby’s gut by preventing harmful substances from passing into the blood
- Breastmilk contains enough water for the baby’s needs
- Breastmilk has a low protein content which makes it suitable for feeding small infants before their kidneys are fully developed. The amount of protein is adequate to promote the normal growth of the baby
- Breastmilk is low in saturated fatty acids; saturated fatty acids from cow’s milk may form a hard curd when they react with hydrochloric acid in the baby’s stomach and may result in the impacting of the curd in the intestine. Cow’s milk is rich in these acids and also contains large amounts of protein. Breastmilk is much safer.