Mighty Milk


By Valerie Shiraz Leyva 

Breastfeeding provides an important way for a mother to strengthen her relationship with her child by providing the gift of optimal health. Well in advance of modern science, the value of mother’s milk was expressed poignantly and poetically. In Tintoretto’s sixteenth century painting The Origin of the Milky Way the infant Hercules greedily suckles the goddess Juno as a spray of milk is spilled across the sky. Of course, mythological accounts were meant to teach important lessons: do not underestimate the inimitable qualities of a substance that over time has proven to be both beautifully, primordially simple and scientifically complex.

The history of the number of breastfed babies points to a culture that has had to re-learn what was once natural and unquestioned. In Western, pre-industrialized society, 95% of babies were breastfed. By the 1950s, partially due to the introduction of food manufacturing and marketing, the segment had declined to 20%. Outside of a dip in the 1980s, the practice has since risen. A number of scientific studies led public health officials and doctors to champion the cause. Last year, 74.6% of American babies were breastfed. These numbers are encouraging, but considering the benefits of breastfeeding, no baby should go without breast milk. A recent study published int the journal Pediatrics found that babies who were breastfed for their first four to six months were less likely to be overweight or obese than children who were fed with formula and began eating solid foods before their fourth month. Shortly after the publication of the Pediatrics study, First Lady Michelle Obama recommended breastfeeding in her campaign to reduce childhood obesity, highlighting just one of numerous reasons to breastfeed.

Breast milk is nutritionally perfect for babies, containing a number of elements that formula does not. Two important components of early development that it affects are digestion and the immune system. A newborn baby’s digestive tract is porous and thus susceptible to bacteria. Colostrum, present in first breast milk, seals and matures the digestive tract. Breast milk contains beneficial bacteria and oligosaccharides that act together to metabolize nutrients and fight pathogenic microbes. Formula, even in the best cases, does not biologically act the same way in a baby’s body. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a diet comprised exclusively of breast milk for the first six months. Research has found that babies who are fed artificial milk in their first year have higher rates of respiratory and digestive disorders, infections of the ear and urinary tract, and meningitis.

In her book Real Food for Mother and Baby author Nina Planck advocates a diet based on traditional, whole foods to support a woman in all stages of breastfeeding. Similar to the practice of breastfeeding, we can safely and reliably look to traditional diets as models simply because they have enabled our species to endure. Again, like with breast milk, research has found that many of the foods that make up traditional diets act together for nutritional optimization. Apparently there is much truth in the proverbial expression the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat — slow cooked soup made using meat on the bone contains nutritious arginine, glycine, and linoleic acid. Of course, adding vegetables to soup creates even more nutritional value. However, it is unnecessary to over think the amount of nutrients in food. Planck’s dietary recommendations are comprised of a great variety of foods including plenty of liquids, meat, poultry, lentils, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts, butter, eggs, pork , cheese, seafood (especially fish with small bones), quality fish oil, and coconut oil, with a special note to keep it clean. This means eat grass fed, pastured meat and dairy, wild seafood, and organic food, and avoid trans fats and processed foods as much as possible. The big brains of babies require clean fat, particularly the DHA found in fish oil. Research has shown that the nutritional benefits of cod liver oil transmitted through breast milk correlate to higher test scores in four year olds. Another great benefit of optimal breastfeeding is that it prompts a diet of delicious foods. Since at least one study has shown that mothers who eat chocolate while pregnant have babies who smile more, don’t forget to add a little of what the Swedish scientist Linnaeus called the “food of the gods”, just for good measure.