About Breast Milk
Human milk contains many elements, some of which are still unknown. It is a living substance that cannot be reproduced. It takes two forms, Colostrum, the first milk produced and breast milk, which 'comes in' gradually a few days post delivery.
Colostrum, The First Milk
Colostrum is the first milk a baby will receive from the breast. Sometimes referred to as liquid gold, it provides important antibodies to help protect against disease.
Colostrum is a combination of food and protective proteins, which line and protect a baby’s gut. It includes a high concentration of antibodies, which help kick start the baby’s immune system. In particular it includes Secretory Immunoglobin (IgA), an antibody that provides the first form of defence in the body. IgA protects the areas that are the first point of contact for germs, mainly on the mucus membranes of the throat, lungs and intestines. Colostrum also includes live white blood cells, which also help to protect the baby from infections and disease. Colostrum also provides high levels of vitamins A and K to help assist blood clotting and the development of the baby’s eyes
To look at, colostrum is a thick, yellowish substance. Its thickness is ideal for a newborn baby who needs time to practice their swallowing and breathing technique. A newborn’s stomach is the size of a marble and care needs to be taken to ensure that it is not overfilled. Liquid may pour in too quickly, but because of its thickness, a newborn can control the flow of the colostrum, giving it time to practice suckling before the milk flows more abundantly. Colostrum is produced in small amounts over the first few days and is all your baby needs in this time. Colostrum is gradually replaced by breast milk and this is commonly known as milk ‘coming in’. Whilst breast milk is more dilute in anti-bodies, it still provides important nutrients perfect for a growing baby.
The breast milk produced by your body is custom made for YOUR baby and changes according to the needs of your baby. Breast milk contains many elements, some of which are still unknown, it includes:
Protein is needed for growth but only a small amount of breast milk is protein (around 1%) as human babies are meant to grow slowly. Human milk contains two types of protein, casein and whey; however, breast milk is mostly made of whey, which is easier for a baby to digest. Whey also includes antibodies which help build a baby’s immune system.
As mentioned above, early breast milk contains a higher proportion of whey compared to casein, this proportion becomes more equal as a baby grows. Casein is the protein that satisfies hunger but is much more difficult to digest. Casein produces tougher curds, which not only take longer to digest but also uses more energy. Artificial milk contains a higher proportion of casein compared to whey, which could help to explain why formula fed babies last longer between feeds. However, in younger babies this results in incomplete digestion.
The main carbohydrate in breast milk is lactose of which there is a high level. Lactose provides the energy required for a baby’s rapidly developing brain. It also makes the milk taste sweeter and helps calcium to be absorbed. Calcium is important for building strong teeth and bones.
Fat provides energy (calories). The fat in breast milk is easily digested and produces almost no waste. It is important for growth and also the development of a baby’s brain, eyes and blood vessels. The fat content of milk changes throughout a feed. At first a baby receives fore milk, which is low in fat, watery and blueish in colour. The fore milk quenches a baby’s thirst. As a feed progresses the fat content increases. The hind milk contains a high amount of fat and calories. Breast milk also contains an enzyme that helps with fat digestion.
Cholesterol is important for the development of the nervous system. Higher levels of cholesterol are found in breast milk compared to artificial milk.
Breast milk contains all the water a baby needs to stay hydrated. Even in extreme conditions a breastfed baby needs no extra water.
The majority of women can provide all the vitamins her baby needs through her breast milk. A women would have to be obviously lacking in a vitamin for levels to be worryingly low in their breast milk. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) can be taken from the stores of the mother. More fat soluble vitamins are found in milk that has higher fat levels. As such, it is important that a baby is allowed to nurse on one breast for as long as they wish to ensure that they reach the high fat hind milk.
Iron is an important mineral that helps prevent amaemia. Baby’s build up a store of iron during the latter part of pregnancy. Whilst breast milk contains less iron than artificial milks, it is of a form that is more easily absorbed by the body (20 times more easily absorbed than the iron in artificial milks). There is a good article about iron in breast milk here.
Other minerals in breast milk are at the perfect levels for a human baby.
Other components contained in Breastmilk
Unlike artificial milks, breast milk contains many non-nutritional components. As in colostrum (although at lower levels), breast milk includes immunoglobulins and white blood cells, which help to protect baby against infections and disease and also help to develop the baby’s immune system. Breast milk also contains hormones and enzymes. All this contributes to a truly amazing, living substance that cannot be duplicated and is the most perfect food for human babies, as nature intended.
Other Articles on our website/blog that you may find interesting
- Latch and Postioning
- What to expect
- Growth Spurts - They're not all that bad!
- My Breastfeeding Essentials for the First Few Weeks
Did you know that we also sell a great selection of breastfeeding supplies? Why not have a look at our online store for breast pumps,nursing necklaces, breastfeeding bras and vests, breast pads and alot more!
 La Leche League International (1997), ‘The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding’, pp,348, La Leche League International, Illinois
 Lim, P (2008), ‘Teach Yourself Successful Breastfeeding’, pp.6, Hodder Education , London
 Palmer, G (2009), ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding When Breasts are Bad for Business’, pp. 29, Pinter and Martin, London.
 Moody, J et al (1996), ‘Breastfeeding your Baby A National Childbirth Trust Guide’, pp.6 HMSO, London