It's strange that something as fundamentally human as breast feeding could go "out of fashion," but toward the end of the last century, the number of babies receiving breast milk up until six months (the current World Health Organization recommendation) fell to record low levels in America.
Good news: breast milk is on the rebound!
Normally, I would not be passionate about this topic, but the prospect of becoming a new father in April, combined with my passion for understanding our human interaction with microbes has quickly made this my favorite research subject.
So here are my top 5 reasons why breast milk is the greatest human food.
1. Breast milk helps babies get the good germs they need to survive.
In the womb, the baby is almost completely sterile. New research is showing that a baby’s acquisition of friendly bacteria in its first months is so critical that a recent study predicted that 800,000 lives a year could be saved annually by allowing every baby access to breast milk for just the first week of life.
A recent Spanish study showed that breast milk contains more than 700 different strains of bacteria, which help to populate the baby’s ‘microbiome’, leading to numerous long-term health benefits. The most obvious is benefit is avoiding allergies, as the presence of microbes early in life ‘teaches’ the body not to react to harmless substances like dust and food.
Other benefits include improvement in the ability not only to break down milk and then solid food, but also to reducing predisposition to a range of ailments like digestive diseases, autoimmune disease and asthma.
Where else are babies getting this?
The latest microbial research is showing that although formula fed kids ‘catch up’ as they have more exposure to good microbes in their environment, their microbiomes never reach the level of diversity or richness of breast fed children.
2. It helps the baby's digestive system.
Early on in milk production, the mother produces extra colostrum. This colostrum is extremely valuable in the development of the baby’s digestive system, leading to better immunity and overall health. This ingredient is so valuable that top holistic doctors will recommend it (typically sourced from cows) for patients with chronic digestive issues like Chron’s or Colitis.
3. It provides essential fatty acids (EFAs).
EFAs are essential for new babies, helping brain development, growth and bile salt production. Breast milk provides a perfect amount of EFAs, even changing over time, as the baby’s needs change.
4. It's better than the alternatives.
Many of today’s biggest nutritional gurus will advocate not buying or eating any food with more than five ingredients. Whenever I read at the labels of formula, it always makes me feel a little uncomfortable, especially the high sugar content. God bless science for the development of great advances, but evolution is a much more powerful and benevolent force.
5. It's empowering.
It's now becoming clear that the diet of the mother during the breastfeeding process affects the nutritional content of the breast milk directly. This knowledge and understanding can be inspiring and motivating to the mother to clean up their own diet. This includes eating more nutrient dense foods and avoiding harmful toxins, like pesticides, heavy metals and triclosan.
The benefits of this sort of empowerment might be felt in her family and community for generations. A couple easy tips for everyone: Stay hydrated and wash your fruits and veggies!