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Breastfeeding: Facts and science

Breastfeeding is based on demand and supply, so the more the infant nurses, the more supply of milk a mothers breasts will produce. Ensure the infant is correctly attached to the breast and feeds often in the first weeks.

The facts

Colostrum, the early days’ milk, is a rich combination of proteins, vitamins and anti-infective agents. .

A few days after the birth, colostrum becomes mature milk, which contains proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. It also contains lactoferrin (a source of iron with antibacterial and antiviral properties) and essential fatty acids, which are important for brain development.

Both colostrum and mature breast milk contain substances to:

  • helps in the absorption of nutrients
  • help prevent risk of infections
  • assists with gut development
  • supports maturity of the developing immune system.

Breast milk is an ever-changing perfect fluid – designed to meet the very unique nutritional needs of that infant. From the beginning of a feed to the end, from feed to feed, and from day to day. Its taste differs according to the mother’s diet, different stages of lactation or even different times of the day – making the introduction to solids easier because the baby is already used to different flavours.

The science

One of the first signs of pregnancy is heavier, sensitive breasts. As the infant grows inside a mother, her breasts are preparing for birth. Colostrum, the early milk, is produced in the breasts from four-five months during pregnancy and for the first days after the birth.

When the infant is born, the levels of prolactin, the milk-producing hormone, rise in the mothers body. When her infant starts sucking, the hormone oxytocin is released, causing the let-down reflex.

In the first days (until Day 3) the infant is fed colostrum, a special thick milk that is low in fat and high in carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and antibodies. It is easy to digest and low in volume (teaspoons rather than ounces), so the infant needs to breastfeed often. In these early days it is important for a mother to breastfeed her infant regularly based on demand.

Breastfeeding women will produce transitional milk around the third or fourth day, maturing up to seven to ten days after the birth. This milk appears thinner and the supply is more abundant.

How much and how often?

It is best to allow the infant to set the pace for feeding in the early weeks. A infant who is well attached will stop feeding when they are full. It is important to note that the infant might not always need both breasts, but mothers should still offer both to be sure.

Young infants need frequent feeds – these will tend to be quicker and more spaced as they grow. In the first weeks, advise mothers that they can expect frequent bowel movements and 6 or more wet nappies a day once breastfeeding has been established – this indicates their infant is feeding well.

Also important to note: If an infant is feeding all the time, this could be because they might not be latched on properly or they are going through a growth spurt. Advise mothers if, at any time, they feel their infant is not thriving to seek support and medical advice.

Healthy infants will let their carers know when they are hungry by signalling cues – advise the mother/carers to look out for these cues:

  • Whimpering
  • Nuzzling against the breast or “rooting”
  • Putting hands towards their mouth
  • Making sucking motions
  • Stretching or yawning
  • Lip smacking
  • Waking and looking alert
  • Crying is late feeding cue

If an infant sleeps for stretches longer than 4 hours in the first two weeks, they should be woken for feeding.

If an infant will not feed a least 8 times, mother should be advised to contact her healthcare professional. A newborn infant can feed  over 1 to 3 hours around the clock. Therefore, an infant should feed 8-12 times per day. However, as every infant is different, the mother will get to know her own infant’s feeding pattern.

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