Uniqueness of Breast Milk

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated July 23, 2017.

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Mother breast feeding her sonThe uniqueness of breast milk is undeniable; it is an incredibly amazing and wonderful living substance!  Unable to be replicated in any laboratory, it is the “norm” for what a baby should eat.  But not only is human milk unique, all mammalian milk is specific to its kind and completely unique for its offspring.  For example, a mother polar bear’s milk has a fat content of 33% (compared to 3-5% in human milk) – perfect for a baby cub who must quickly put on weight – with an average 2100% growth rate in his first four months of life!  A mother goat and mother cow produce milk that is much higher in protein than human milk – exactly what these baby mammals need to quickly gain muscle and strength.1

Infants are born with immature immune and intestinal systems that need human milk to help them grow and mature while preparing them for food later in the first year of life.  A baby’s brain will triple in weight during the first two years so a mother’s milk is low in protein but highest of all milks in lactose – essential for appropriate brain development.  Human milk is also the only mammalian milk with higher concentrations of whey than casein – which helps a baby’s body quickly digest each serving so she will be awake sooner and ready for more cuddles and bonding that come through breastfeeding…as well as satisfying her hunger.

It seems that societies in developed countries are caught between knowledge and belief.  Everyone knows the rhetoric “Breast is Best,” yet our actions show most people don’t really believe there is much difference between formula and breast milk.  Nursing seems to be an ideal, a lofty goal, but a perfectly healthy and acceptable substitution is believed to be found in infant formula.  One need not look any farther than the CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card which shows that while 81.1% of mothers initiated breastfeeding in 2016, only 22.3% of mothers were still exclusively breastfeeding at six months. 2

Artificial milk may be derived from a number of sources – cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy beans or even almonds and rice. Various components are added and taken away and the milk is heated and treated to be digested by an infant. It is a very complex process to change the milk of one species (or plant!) to make it edible by another.  Not only are there multiple modes of contamination possible throughout this process (not to mention contamination that can occur later from dirty water or mixing formula for the baby), even the ingredients are so different the two substances really can’t even be compared.  Yes, both can be put in a baby’s body.  But only the norm – breast milk – was created uniquely for babies.  The variant – formula – is so vastly different that study after study consistently proves that these babies will not reach their intellectual potential.  Along with this, their physical health will suffer as a result, throughout their entire lives.

Nursing can be exhausting, difficult, and just plain hard – especially in the beginning, especially without support, especially with a preemie, an emergency c-section, a pediatrician who is not sold on breast milk, when you are surrounded with others who are not encouraging, multiples, sleep deprivation, pumping, cracked nipples, clogged ducts, a crying baby, no one to help, low supply, and so much more! But breastfeeding initiation rates are on the rise in the West.  It is not a lack of desire to breastfeed, but so many more times a lack of support, accurate information, and help.

Yes, breast milk is absolutely unique.  Yes, it is perfect for your baby.  And for mother.  Yes, it is best.  But it is also the norm.  With support and help it is something you, too, can give your precious baby!

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Biology of Lactation 342-460B. Milk: An Overview. www.animsci.agrenv.mcgill.ca/courses/460/topics/2/text.pdf
  2. CDC Breastfeeding Report Card, United States (2016). www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2016BreastfeedingReportCard.pdf.
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