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Infant Advantages of Breastfeeding

In my experience, the numerous health benefits to infants are the chief reasons parents give for choosing to breastfeed. Prospective parents who are informed about the compelling arguments in favor of breastfeeding usually are motivated to give nursing a try. After all, what parent doesn't want the very best for his or her baby? An in-depth discussion of the advantages of breastfeeding and human milk easily could fill an entire text. Every year, scientists discover new ways that human milk enhances an infant's health and development. The most commonly cited infant benefits of breastfeeding are reviewed below.

Human Milk is the Ideal Food for Infants
All infant feeding experts agree that human milk is nature's perfect design for feeding babies and that it is uniquely suited to promote optimal infant growth and development. Human milk contains more than two hundred constituents-proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, trace metals, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, white blood cells, and more-each in ideal proportion to one another. This precise biochemical balance-virtually a "symphony of ingredients"-cannot possibly be duplicated artificially. The components in human milk represent more than necessary nutrients, and many play multiple roles in promoting the health and development of babies.

The proteins in human milk not only provide essential building blocks for growth but also perform other vital functions including helping to protect babies from illness. The proteins in human milk include disease-fighting antibodies and many other important immune properties. Human milk has less protein than the amount added to formulas because breast milk protein is utilized more efficiently by babies. It forms a softer curd that is more easily digestible than cow's milk or formula curd. Breastfed babies feed more often than formula-fed infants because their stomachs empty sooner. Proteins break down into amino acids, the composition of which is ideally suited to meet the unique requirements of infants.

The fats in human milk provide its major source of energy and are essential for the optimal development of the infant brain and nervous system. Breast milk conveniently contains a fat-digesting enzyme, lipase, that aids an infant's fat digestion. Human milk is rich in long-chained polyunsaturated fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid. DHA is present in large amounts in human milk, and at the current time, is absent in U.S. formulas. DHA is found in the infant's rapidly developing brain and eye tissue and is necessary for proper brain and eye development. It is not yet known whether an infant diet lack-ing the fatty acid composition of human milk has permanent adverse effects. However, a recent study found poorer visual ability in formula-fed premature babies than in those fed breast milk. Human milk is also rich in cholesterol, while formulas have little or none. Although the significance of this is unknown, research in rats suggests that animals who consume high levels of cholesterol in infancy may be better able to cope with dietary cholesterol and maintain a lower cholesterol level in later life.

The predominant carbohydrate found in milk is lactose, also known as milk sugar because it is found only in milk. In addition to being an important source of calories, lactose improves the absorption of certain minerals, including calcium. Lactose also promotes the growth of harmless intestinal bacteria in the breastfed baby's gut. These benign bowel germs create an acid environment that helps protect against the proliferation of harmful bacteria that cause infant diarrhea.

Human milk is a dynamic fluid, varying in composition depending on the stage of lactation, the maternal diet, the time of day, and other factors. The first milk your breasts produce, known as colostrum, is scant in volume, but high in protein, rich in immunities, and easily digested by your baby. Over the first ten days, colostrum gradually changes to mature milk, which is lower in protein and higher in lactose and fat. Although thinner in appearance, mature milk remains unmatched in nutritional quality. The fat content of milk is low at the beginning of a feeding and increases throughout the feeding. Breast milk is easily digested and produces loose bowel movements that are passed easily and that are not unpleasant smelling.

From Dr. Mom's Guide to Breastfeeding by Marianne R. Neifert. Copyright © 1998 by Marianne R. Neifert. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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