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Breastfeeding Benefits: Breast Milk's Nutrients and How They Help Your Baby Grow

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Iron is an important mineral necessary for making red blood cells that carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When infants don't get enough iron in their diet, iron deficiency and anemia can occur and result in impaired development. Years ago, scientists noted that breast milk contained very little iron, compared to the amount present in iron-fortified formulas. The implication was that human milk was deficient in iron and that breastfed babies needed to be supplemented with this mineral. Yet, iron-deficiency anemia is seldom observed in breastfed infants. Several years elapsed before it was proved that the small amount of iron in human milk is exceptionally well absorbed by breastfed infants. Eventually, experts conceded that the relatively small amount of iron present in breast milk was sufficient for young infants. Mother Nature was vindicated again. After about six months of exclusive breastfeeding, infants deplete their iron stores and require additional sources of iron to prevent iron deficiency and anemia. Once semisolid foods are started, however, iron-fortified infant cereal is usually an adequate source of the extra iron needed by breastfed infants. No prescribed iron drops are ordinarily necessary for healthy, breastfed infants. Premature babies, infants born with low red blood cell counts, and babies with other special health needs might require supplemental iron on an individual basis. Whenever you have iron supplements in your home, keep them out of the reach of children! Many parents don't realize that an overdose of iron supplements can be deadly poisonous. Iron ingestion accounts for a number of childhood deaths each year. Infant drops, children's vitamin/iron tablets, and adult vitamin/iron preparations all are highly toxic when an overdose is taken.

One of the greatest public health discoveries of all time was the recognition that naturally occurring fluoride in drinking water supplies drastically reduces the incidence of dental caries, or cavities. Today, fluoride is added to many community water supplies. In low-fluoride areas, fluoride supplements are recommended for children, and until recently, some practitioners were starting supplements in the early months of life. Since human milk contains little fluoride, even where drinking water supplies are optimally fluoridated, supplements commonly were prescribed for exclusively breastfed infants under six months of age. In addition to the fluoride consumed from community water supplies or fluoride supplements, young children swallow fluoride-containing toothpaste during brushing.

Recently, increased numbers of American youngsters have been found to have dental fluorosis as a result of consuming excess fluoride. Fluorosis is a cosmetic problem in which the tooth enamel is discolored as a result of excess fluoride intake, especially in the preschool years. The appearance of fluorosis can range from barely perceptible chalky white specks to larger areas of pitting or brownish-gray staining. To prevent dental fluorosis, the Council on Dental Therapeutics and the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their recommendations for fluoride supplements for infants and children. Babies, even those exclusively breastfed, should NOT be given fluoride supplements in the first six months of life. Thereafter, infants whose families reside in nonfluoridated areas should receive fluoride supplements, although the recommended dosage has been reduced over the first six years of life. The drops can be prescribed by a physician or dentist.

If your community water supply is adequately fluoridated, your baby should NOT receive any supplemental fluoride, even after six months of age.

I wish I knew the origin of the popular myth that breastfed babies require extra water. This widespread belief has no doubt done more harm than good. I suppose the practice originated decades ago when newborns were hospitalized for many days after birth. During this era, mothers and babies routinely were separated, feedings were rigidly scheduled and timed, and round-the-clock demand nursing almost never occurred. In this unsupportive environment, few babies obtained sufficient fluids from breastfeeding alone. Thus, it became common practice to offer newborns supplemental water after each nursing before the mother's milk came in abundantly.

The fact is that human milk is about 87 percent water. A baby who drinks enough milk to meet her other nutritional needs automatically will receive sufficient water. On the other hand, if a baby doesn't drink enough milk, giving extra water might prevent infant dehydration, but it won't make up for the shortfall in calories, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Instead of water, what an underfed baby needs is more milk-human milk or infant formula if the breast milk supply is low. Ordinarily, healthy, thriving breastfed babies shouldn't need any extra water. When you find yourself thirsty on a hot day, be sure to nurse your baby more often to provide her extra fluids.

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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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